What Councillors should do

Press reports of large salaries paid to senior Council officials, and yesterday’s post on this blog about Chief Executives of Councils, has revealed the strong feeling that Council bureaucracies are out of touch and spending far too much on themselves.

We elect Councillors to direct and control these bureaucracies, and are about to see some of them on our doorsteps asking for our vote. It is a good time to remind them that above all we want them to seek value for money in what they do spend, and reduce the Council Tax they impose on us.

To do this, in many cases they could cut the Tax by:

1. Telling their officers that they are halving the budget for external consultancies, as they expect their professional staff at the Council to do more of the work themselves.
2. Impose a staff freeze on all administrative and executive posts, appointing to the ones that really matter from among the exisiting employees of the Council.
3. Design with the top officers a new structure for top officials, with fewer posts, to be implemented as and when senior officers leave. This might entail removing the CEO’s office, or requiring the CEO to undertake one of the functional roles as well.
4. Concentrate the work of the Councils on the main services that matter – schools, social care, planning and transport. Reduce the Council’s involvement in trying to run everyone else’s responsibilities through so called partnerships.
5. Cut the number of commitees and meetings, with Councillors concentrating on a limited number of issues that matter most.
6. Cut out all the expensive surveys – it is the job of Councillors to keep in touch with electors and to know the mood of the taxpayers and service users. Councillors should take an interest in the Complaints department, and seek to abolish it by managing down the number of complaints to remove the need for it.
7. Stopping the urge of some Highways departments to tinker endlessly and expensively with the network.
8. Review the assets of the Council and dispose of assets that are not being used and properly maintained in Council care.
9. Implement a policy to cut the Council’s use of energy by improving insulation, controls and building use.
10. Review the Council’s transport requirements and vehicle use to cut the cost.

Many Councils could save millions by following these simple approaches. Officers try to keep Councillors discussing “unavoidable commitments”, “partnerships”, “service obligations”, grant formulae and budgets based on the expectation of perpetual growth in resources. Councillors need to reply by talking about the cash people have to send to the Council to pay for everything, and the results they are getting for spending it all. They should remember that many people cannot afford an increase in their Council Tax and do not think it represents good value to them.

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22 Comments

  1. Posted March 30, 2008 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    They might even save money by
    a) not sending me booklets saying how good they are for we all can see that they are not.
    b) not translating information into all known languages.
    c) stop building new offices for themselves, it only encourages growth to fit the new space.
    d) stop giving my money away to charities and 'community groups', I will choose who to give to. ( hint, in hard times it begins close by, at home)

  2. Tony Makara
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    This is a timely piece. Over the last 10 to 15 years we have seen the emergence of the career-councillor, often voted into power on as little as a 15-20%, have little experience of working with money, yet are given control over huge budgets and more often than not run up debts which they pass on to the long-suffering tax payer. We need to ask whether a councillor ought to have some sort of experience of dealing with money before he/she gets access to the public purse? The bureaucratic superstructures created by these councillors is proof that they do not know how to handle money.

    It is often a shock to see the intellectual standard of many councillors and to see that they are clearly not upto the job. A way around this would be to ensure that a set percentage of council seats are given over to representatives from the local business community. That is as well as the usual political candidates there should be an opportunity to vote for non-political business candidates in a separate ballot. A percentage of business leaders on the council would bring commonsense to every council and ensure that the very people who create jobs and invest in community have a voice and are in place to keep the public finances in check.

  3. Elizabeth Elliot-Pyl
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Never mind halving the cost of external consultants – it should be removed altogether. Why do they need external consultants anyway? If they cannot do the job themselves they should leave and someone who CAN do the job should replace them.

  4. Posted March 30, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    yes, a zero based budgeting approach is what is needed. I worked in a central Government finance branch back in the early 80's, when with the backing of the then PM we took away huge budgets from self-important but incompetenct senior civil servants. Of course they screamed the place down and shouted about "their money", but were ignored. The sheer waste among local government officials has to be seen to be believed – here we have a City Council shoving money down the throat of every Polish immigrant who pretends to have opened a business. Brown boasts of spending millions on educating Africans when he can't even educate the children of his own taxpayers. Charity begins at home, but try telling that to the self-righteous idiots in ODA. I agree with all your points, but above all you start the cutting at the top – Labour always start by sacking a few cleaners. Remove the godfathers and then you can get rid of the hangers on.

  5. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    John you & the other three responders have made some sound suggestions on how to cut local authorities down to size so that council tax cuts can be produced . If that could be done at a local level then it would prove that smaller government and a lighter tax load can be done nationwide . Well done all – very sound ideas all round !

  6. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    John you & the other three responders have made some sound suggestions on how to cut local authorities down to size so that council tax cuts can be produced . If that could be done at a local level then it would prove that smaller government and a lighter tax load can be done nationwide . Well done all – very sound ideas all round !

  7. Bazman
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Good point Elizabeth. When and how did all this consultant gravy train begin?

  8. Michael Hunt
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I agree that outside consultants should be used less and only where essential. They are expensive and often employed just to delay, off-load responsibility and protect the backs of management.

    Tony Makara's point about increasing the number of counsellors with business experience is a good one although I am not sure how this could be best achieved. It is quite wrong that local business is disenfranchised from local government.

  9. Gaz
    Posted March 30, 2008 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I have to disagree Michael Hunt, the business community are entirely disconnected from Local Government. Local Government is a nuisance, staffed with busy body amatuers.

    The only way to get local businesses to take an interest in the management of local councils is to re-establish control of business rates to local authorities.

  10. NigelC
    Posted March 31, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Couldn't we also tackle the allowances paid to members?

    See the LGA research department survey here: http://www.lgar.local.gov.uk/lgv/core/page.do?pag

    Some councils pay out over £500k to the elected members themselves

  11. backofanenvelope
    Posted March 31, 2008 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Down here in Cornwall a massive re-organisation is underway. No one wanted it but it is happening. It will cost a lot of money.

    The only way waste will be curtailed is by limiting the council tax. It should be fixed at the inflation level for next year; then inflation minus 1% after that.

    That will concentrate a lot of minds.

  12. MA
    Posted March 31, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    As a consultant who spends most of his time working in Local Government, I have to agree with large part of this article. The problem with the relationship between my profession and Local Government is a tricky one, but mainly because the work that we do so rarely ends up in any improvements. I would say that 90% of the work that I do ends up lining drawers and sitting on shelves and not used as a starting point for action.

    Local Government uses consultants to give the appearance of taking action, rather than actually taking action. This goes to the heart of the problem, if consultants like myself aren't making a difference then let's stop spending the money on consultants. However, will Local Government improve if left to it's own devices? Certainly not. At a time when demands on Council Services are increasing and when Central Government continues to foist pointless, non-beneficial and time-consuming policies onto Local Government we are desperately in need of improvements to Local Public service delivery.

    Without transparent budgeting and tackling job protectionism in Local Government we can't really know which Councils are doing a good job and which ones aren't. Furthermore, we can't do anything about when we do find out. Taking consultants out of the equation will have a short-term effect on the bottom line, but it won't help Local Government face up to the responsibilities that it faces.

  13. Glyn H
    Posted March 31, 2008 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Councillors should only be paid directly incurred expenses – it is a voluntary public service that they undertake. Labour has sought to undermine that by encouraging ‘professional’ councillors – sometimes even employees of neighbouring councils. We should immediately abolish all these ludicrous titles such as ‘Cabinet (if you please!) member for the environment and officials should have proper job titles such as ‘Town Clerk’ and ‘accounts manager’ rather than ‘Director of Corporate…’. I have today telephoned the ‘Leisure Manager’ of a District Council to be told he is having a day off but so is his PA. One secretary should be quite enough for such a being. We should reintroduce the business vote. We should abolish Local education authorities in their present form and look hard at this idea of parents being able to set up competitive schools. Much of this trouble goes back to Mrs T having to curb loony left councils, such as those run by Frank Dobson, Lady Hodge and Derek Hatton. Labour has ramped the unintended consequences up for their own electoral ends.

  14. Posted March 31, 2008 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Glyn H. But I Have one additional thought – if we had a rule that central Government could never impose duties on local Government it would save a good deal of the shenanigans that goes on at present. Let local Government deal with truly local concerns as it thinks fit.

  15. Knowledge-is-power
    Posted March 31, 2008 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    An excellent article, however I think there is another, as yet unexplored abuse. Has anyone looked at the ALMOs? What are they? They are Arms Length Management Organisations. They are set up by the council to compete for work that has by law to be offered out to tender. Surprise surprise they win the contract, and everything is nicely protected from those nasty, uncaring private companies.
    Surely a suitable focus for the audit commission?

  16. a-tracy
    Posted April 1, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Ah yes, the ALMO. Temp small well run businesses to apply and tender for work, jumping through hoops, spelling out exactly how they will perform and manage the contract in detail, take details off them of their current client base and how they function, then award the contract to an ALMO (usually with ex key staff placepersons in charge) who then uses all the best ideas from the innovative entrepreneurial sector for free.

  17. Rose
    Posted April 1, 2008 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    You don't, I think, mention, unless I have missed it, the argument for taking education of the back of the council tax payer.

    When the education of poor and orphaned children cost next to nothing, it was paid for by the council, often inheriting the duty from local benefactors, or by the Church. It was the same for housing, which was another form of almsgiving in the past.

    It is an anomaly that modern schools, housing, and the ever-growing social services, with their vast bureaucracies, should be competing for resources with street cleaning and lighting, care of pavements etc., the parks, and policing. These latter necessities were bound to be squeezed out by the powerful vested interests of the "caring" classes. But if the historical ways of doing things were being followed logically, education, welfare, and council housing would now all be being paid for by local businesses, not private OAPs, and those businesses would see to it that things were done efficiently, wouldn't they?.

  18. Posted April 1, 2008 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Actually most councillors get very little, around £8000 for a part time job. They would need a second part time job in order to live, one that let them get to evening meetings. Cutting this would mean only the wealthy or retired could do it, or perhaps the corrupt.

    The average UK salary is around £24,000, which contrasts with the huge +£60,000 the MPs get, with golden pensions and huge expenses, taxis, mortgandes paid etc.

    reply:I DID NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT COUNCILLORS PAY BUT ABOUT CEO PAY. I WANT TO SEE COUNCILLORS EXERCISE MORE CONTROL OVER CEOS. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MPS AND COUNCILLORS IS THAT BEING AN MP IS SOMEONE'S MAIN JOB WHEREAS WORKING AGE COUNCILLORS HAVE MAIN JOBS ELSEWHERE.

  19. Steven_L
    Posted April 2, 2008 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    The biggest one, that I've yet to hear anyone make a worthwhile suggestion on how to counter, is the culture of public sector accounting and finance.

    Every single department in any council is guilty of doing it. The problem is that they spend their end of year budget surplus on anything they can think of lest it be cut the next year, even fourty pound an hour consultants that do little more than make the tea and take long lunches!

    The incentive to do this needs to be removed, somehow, but I have no idea how.

    Reply: WHEN I WAS A COUNTY COUNCILLOR I USED TO PUT SPECIAL CONTROLS ON SPENDING IN FEB AND MARCH TO TRY TO AVOID THAT.

  20. Rose
    Posted April 2, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    PS to Steven L: Universities do this too.

  21. Posted April 6, 2008 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    As a Councillor since 1999 and a holder of executive posts since 2002, I agree with every one of Mr. Redwood's points. The comments, however, are another matter. The suggestion that some Councillors should be drawn only from the business community is unnecessary and dangerous. Many Councillors already come from the business community and if you start having special representation for sections of the community then it won't stop with just business, every interest group will want 'their' Councillors. Also, the idea that such people would be 'non-political' is, frankly, naive. Attacking Councillors allowances is always a good one; in what other area do you try to attract better people by paying them less? Then there are the consultants: the reason to employ consultants is for specialist skills that you do not otherwise have and which you do not need in the long term. So, in my Council we hire specialist property consultants for large regeneration projects or IT consultancies to design our new CCTV system. What we don't do is have the same consultants employed year after year, or to tell us what Council policy should be.

    Here is Basildon we have taken millions off the structural costs of the Council since assuming control, and we run a tight financial operation. It can be done.

  22. Rose
    Posted April 10, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I have been cut off from reading your blog because the public library where I use the computers had a very small fire in a back staff room during the early hours one day last week and is now shut indefinitely. So one can't get at any of the books or papers either. I am now in one of the branch libraries in the suburbs where no arrangements have been made by the council to extend the limited hours or reinforce the staff. As one of my socialist friends pointed out indignantly, if the main library were a private business it would have opened the morning after as if nothing had happened. Furthermore, as the computers are "free", it has driven out of business all the city centre internet cafes, and appears in the Lonely Planet Guide as offering free internet access to anyone passing through. Your plea for smaller government both nationally and locally is ringing in my ears. It should at any rate be much less ambitious in the "services" it offers to the whole world.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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