THEY say a week is a long time in politics.
Well this last week has certainly been the longest and one of the most unpleasant of my life.
I’ve experienced just about every negative human emotion going and I’ve barely had more than a few winks sleep.
I have been absolutely devastated by the way in which the story about the chief executive of Hartlepool Borough Council getting a pay rise in the wake of the huge cuts being imposed on Hartlepool has been portrayed and I’m gutted that the reputation of Hartlepool and the council has been severely damaged both locally and nationally.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not seeking any sympathy and I certainly don’t expect any.
I’m fully aware that the buck stops with me. My cabinet and I made a decision and it is up to me to explain the reasoning behind that decision and, more importantly, what I intend to do about it now.
The actual decision to remunerate the post of chief executive on a scale of between £158,000 and £168,000 was taken in October, 2009, nearly a year and a half ago.
The world was a very different place back then. We weren’t even close to getting a Government that is imposing enormous funding cuts on local authorities.
We had barely even started looking at setting last year’s budget for the council, never mind this year’s.
The decision followed a very long and detailed process which actually began in April 2008 and it was a decision that saw the chief executive’s salary increase by only £1,000 per annum at the time it was made.
I completely appreciate that, regardless of when the decision was made or whatever the state of the council’s finances at the time, it is still a huge salary and that fact was never lost on the cabinet.
The reality is that it is the going rate. The reality is that it was the going rate.
Cabinet took into consideration information from a range of local authorities in early 2009. The cabinet felt that the level of responsibility of the post had increased since the last review, due to extra responsibilities being imposed on councils by the Government over that period. And, at the time, we felt that an increase of £1,000 to the salary, rising over time, was a fair outcome.
Fairness is an issue that was at the forefront of the whole process. As I have said, the review of the responsibilities and salary of the chief executive began in early 2008.
In actual fact, this was two years later than it should have happened as the terms of the job state it should be reviewed every three years and it hadn’t happened since 2003
To help with this review, we asked for some independent advice to give us an idea of what factors we should be considering and to recommend a salary level based on these factors.
The report came back to cabinet recommending that we set a salary level of £190,000, a rise of nearly £40,000.
The cabinet flatly rejected this recommendation as it was felt the evidence in the report did not back up the recommendation and this increase could not be justified.
We also agreed to review the position again twelve months later in order to bring the frequency of the reviews back into kilter with the terms and conditions of the job.
At that time, every single employee of the council was undergoing a job evaluation review as part of a process that the council was required to do.
That is a different story but, incidentally, more than 60 per cent of council staff got an increase to their salary at a cost of more than £6m annually to the council.
As part of this process, every employee was entitled to an independent appeal on the outcome of their review.
The cabinet was absolutely clear that there should be parity with every other employee when it came to dealing with the chief executive.
To cut a long and detailed story short, we came to a conclusion that, at the time, a year and a half ago, seemed to be the fairest outcome all round.
I can guarantee each and every one of you that if the same issue arose today, the outcome would be very different.
Not one cabinet member, myself included, would even consider any pay rise for anyone in the current financial climate.
Having spent most of the last six months of my life agonising over setting a budget that inevitably led to a loss of jobs, a loss of services and a tidal wave of unhappiness amongst the public, I despaired when I saw this pay increase being reported in the context of the current budget cuts.
It is often said that politicians and decision makers are out of touch with reality and the way this story came out paints me in exactly the same light. But that could not be further from the truth.
I know only too well how decisions I make affect others. I know exactly how difficult it is going to be for many people because of all these cuts.
My wife is being made redundant from the council next month so I know exactly what effect these cuts are having and I cannot stress enough that I totally understand people’s anger at the way this story looks.
I don’t expect everyone to believe me and I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with the decision. However, I hope I have given a clear explanation as to why and how the decision was made at the time.
The outcome would be very different today with the benefit of hindsight.
For some time now, the cabinet has been looking at many different ways in which to save money and a number of options will be considered over the coming year.
I’ve already mentioned that we are talking to our neighbouring local authorities to explore the possibility of sharing services in the future.
This may include sharing staff and senior management. But I certainly would not rule out sharing a chief executive with another council in the near future.
This, along with a number of other ideas for savings, is already being looked at and will naturally progress as the year passes by.
However, I am extremely conscious of the damage that has been done recently and the need to take some rapid action to try and repair a bit of that damage.
With that in mind, I have asked the chief executive to take four weeks unpaid leave over the course of the upcoming financial year and I am pleased to report that he has agreed to do so.
This will generate a saving to the council of nearly £13,000 and I believe this is a fair and necessary step given the current circumstances and I hope it will go some way to rebuilding some public confidence in the cabinet and repair some of our reputation with the Government.
Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, recently announced that all jobs within local authorities with a salary of over £100,000 should be agreed by the full council in the interests of transparency and accountability.
I welcome this move and I propose to go even further here by sending every senior management post to full council to agree the salary level prior to the recruitment process.
That would mean any job with a salary of £58,000 or above would need full council approval.
These two actions would have probably happened at a later date anyway. But, as I said at the beginning, the buck stops with me and it is up to me to try and make right what is clearly wrong in the eyes of everyone who read the Mail last week.
In monetary terms, the council will now be saving more than it would had the cabinet not agreed a pay rise a year-and-a -half ago and the intention is that Hartlepool is at the forefront when it comes to transparency around senior officers’s pay in the future and hopefully, a week similar to the one that has just passed, will never happen again.