The role of council chief executive is a “non-job” and can only be justified in future if it is shared across local authority areas and between different public services such as health, the communities secretary has said.
Speaking at the LGA conference in Bournemouth, Eric Pickles told LGC that he wanted to see much more progress from councils on joining up back office services and sharing chief executives.
He said there was “no difference” between the job of local authority leader and local authority chief executive and in future he would expect to see chief executives “adding value” to councils by expanding their role beyond their local authority area – through shared services and across other public services such as Primary Care Trusts.
He said: “What we are saying is very clear: if chief executives want to continue as a job - because currently it’s a non-job - then they’ve got to bring something to the table, which means I’m very much looking forward to seeing local authorities starting to share chief executives.
“That is the future. We want to see it go across different disciplines and different stakeholders: PCTs, health … different organisations brought in. Then if that is the case I don’t really mind what people are paid - but I rather object to paying for a duplication.”
Mr Pickles said he could some times be “a bit brassy and a bit vulgar”, but the issue about the role of chief executives was one he felt “very strongly about”.
He said: “It’s really about trying to push the agenda along. I feel that in order for us to move on I’m very much in favour of chief executives bringing something extra – so those who are managing services and neighbourhood beyond just the local authority are people that are adding something to local authorities. The time is gone when small districts can have a chief executive on a high salary.”
Mr Pickles said the government would publish a white paper next week on health, which would contain within it some ideas about cross-agency working and joining up local services.
But Mr Pickles ruled out any suggestion that, as communities secretary, he would scrap the role of permanent secretary in the Department for Communities & Local Government. He said that while he believes council leaders and their chief executives have the same powers, “to say that I have the same powers as my permanent secretary is utterly absurd”.
He added: “And to suggest that in anyway [a permanent secretary] is comparable to a chief executive … Well, I dare say there are a number of chief executives that like to think they are permanent secretaries but they certainly aren’t.”
Mr Pickles denied that his stance on chief executives, as well as other issues, such as railing against fortnightly bin collections and the council tax freeze, was central government interfering in local government issues, something which he has repeatedly promised not to do.
He said: “If I were [the previous government’s communities secretary] John Denham, I would be issuing instructions for chief executives to do this, issuing instructions to cap their pay – I’m not going to do none of those things. I’m not driving this, it’s not what I want, it’s what the public wants that matters. What I am doing is trying to push some ideas out and I think the public would like the idea of getting better value for money.”