Leading politicians in local government have told MPs they do not want to merge their roles with that of chief executives in ‘chiefless’ councils.
Both David Hodge (Con), leader of Surrey CC, and Colin Lambert (Lab), former leader of Rochdale MBC, told members of the communities and local government select committee that they believe there should be a clear differentiation between the politicians who draw up the policies and the officers who are meant to deliver them.
The committee is conducting an inquiry into senior pay in local government.
There are a handful of ‘chiefless’ councils in England, including Kent CC and Wiltshire Council, and Tory MP Mark Pawsey said Rugby BC in his constituency appeared to be doing “pretty well” without a chief executive.
Cllr Hodge said while Surrey CC has cut other senior management costs, he thought the job of managing his county council was too big for a political leader.
“I think it’s a huge job for one person to run,” he said. “When you are providing services to over one million people and with a budget of £1.7bn you do need somebody at the helm.”
When Cllr Hodge was pressed on whether Surrey CC had ever considered going chiefless, he said: “No, we haven’t. For me there are two distinct roles in local authorities.
“There’s the political, policy-making role and that requires a great deal of time and effort because there is a lot to get through.
“Then there’s the operational side. I think it’s really important that the chief executive and leader operate as one team.”
Cllr Hodge said it was important to have a leader and chief executive who could challenge each other, but added it was up to other councils to decide what was best for them.
Cllr Lambert said while he had “a large amount of sympathy” with the notion of a chiefless council he added: “We stand on a political ticket for whatever party on the policies that we go out to the public and sell. We say: ‘We will protect services. We will get your roads repaired.’ We then hold to account those officers who are paid to deliver [those policies], so I would like to see the two separated.”
Meanwhile, members of the select committee were told it would be helpful if other public services were as transparent as councils are.
Mary Pett, honorary secretary of the Alace, said: “That would help put things in context.
“If all you know is what your local authority chief executive is being paid and you know nothing else you’ve got no way of assessing [salaries] in relation to a hospital, a school, a college, a housing association.
“Housing associations only provide one of several thousand services local government provides, and they tend to pay much higher rates than what local government does.”