How dare fat cat council bosses bleat about cuts?

Published by The Daily Mail (10th April, 2019)

A few months ago, leaders of Labour-controlled Slough Borough Council added their signatures to a ‘Breaking Point’ campaign of councillors fighting against ‘breathtaking levels of cuts that austerity has made to budgets’.

Their angry calls for an end to the cruelty of austerity were led by council leader James Swindlehurst, who was joined by all his Labour colleagues in signing the national petition in protest at pressures on social-care spending.

Mr Swindlehurst has often hit out at the financial challenges faced by his council. So when hiring a new chief executive, he blogged that the recruit must handle a tough fiscal climate: ‘The council continues to feel the squeeze of Government austerity and it’s now more important than ever to be focused on the right priorities.’

Yet it is hard not to question some of the council’s own priorities. For the TaxPayers’ Alliance lobby group has revealed that this unfashionable Berkshire town handed its interim chief executive an astonishing £595,077, topping its annual Town Hall Rich List. Roger Parkin was given a basic annual salary of £112,159 topped up by early pension payments of £339,903 plus a severance bung of £142,215 when he left the job at the end of 2017.

Perhaps this helps explain why the 150,000 Slough residents are being squeezed hard by Mr Swindlehurst and his council pals, who have just raised council tax bills by almost three per cent. 

Slough has long been an unfair butt of jokes and jibes, from John Betjeman’s poem proposing its obliteration — Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough/ It isn’t fit for humans now — through to The Office, that whippet-smart TV satire set there by Ricky Gervais. Yet today it symbolises the shameful trend for fat cats milking the public purse.

For schools, hospitals, railways and universities now seem consumed by the greed that stains so much of the private sector, bleating about the need to find the right people as they shovel huge chunks of cash into the pockets of their most senior officials.

It is bad enough to see so many business bosses with snouts in the trough as they suck up huge sums from shareholders, regardless of performance or skill. Now we see the same tactics — and hear the same pathetic excuses — with pen-pushers in the public sector, only this time with money taken from hard-pressed taxpayers.

When so many of them are leading complaints about austerity, this sticks in the craw — especially while some of the people trousering taxpayers’ money are overseeing the sale of playing fields, closure of libraries, slashing of bus routes and reduction of vital care services.

The new TaxPayers’ Alliance report reveals there are 607 other council officials dotted around the country who are deemed worthy of higher pay than the Prime Minister’s £150,402 salary — a rise of 50 on the previous year.

And Essex is the worst offender, with a shocking 55 bureaucrats on six-figure salaries — almost double the number pocketing such pay levels the previous year. Thirteen of these officials took home more than Theresa May.

Meanwhile, this same Tory-run council, stuffed with high earners sitting around at its meetings in Chelmsford town hall, has sparked furious protests over plans to cut at least one-third of its 74 libraries and reduce evening bus services.

Hackney, Lambeth and Birmingham councils, all catering to some of the poorest communities in the country, each paid 28 senior staff packages totalling £100,000 or more — as did North Lanarkshire in Scotland.

Joe Blott, Wirral’s managing director for delivery, managed to deliver himself a total pay package of £569,423 including his pension and severance money.

In Bath, Birmingham and Northumberland, officials won financial packages in excess of £400,000.

Bear in mind that Birmingham, once a model town hall but more recently engulfed by bad management, is in such dire straits that it has ramped up council tax by the maximum 4.99 per cent permitted without a public vote. It has even dimmed street lights and is slashing hundreds of jobs — yet this is all down to ‘brutal’ Government cuts, according to Labour council leader Ian Ward.

I do not dispute that austerity is biting hard in many town halls. Indeed, one major problem with the policy was how a cowardly Coalition government dumped the biggest cutbacks on local authorities, leading to huge strains on vital services.

This was all the more inflammatory when billions were blown on the ever-swelling foreign aid bill.

Smug ministers helped communities in Cambodia and China at the expense of their own citizens in Cardiff, Cleethorpes and Coventry. Yet handing eye-watering pay packages to hundreds of top officials is not only a disgraceful waste of public money — it also totally undermines the many justified complaints about struggling local services.

Sadly, the same avarice corrodes other parts of the public sector. So universities say they are struggling, some laden down by debt and slashing jobs — yet almost half their vice-chancellors took home more than £300,000 last year.

Many school chiefs earn more than the Prime Minister. The head of a school in Holland Park, West London, once dubbed the ‘Socialist Eton’, has doubled his pay in seven years to £260,000, while the boss of an academy chain collected £440,000.

The NHS has also been infected. The highest paid GPs can earn almost £600,000 while the interim manager at St George’s University Hospitals Foundation Trust in London was recently found to be earning the equivalent of £700,000 a year.

Two ambulance trust chiefs were also handed more than half a million pounds in total packages — while the average paramedic working long hours to save lives in stressful situations earned £35,136 in 2017, including allowances and overtime for all those tense late nights.

The same self-indulgence can be seen at the top of the public sector from the BBC nabobs in Broadcasting House through to some top cops and the suits running often shambolic railways. Bonuses have become commonplace just for doing core jobs.

These people echo the private sector by claiming they must earn fortunes to ensure the best candidates for complex posts. Yet studies have found excessive high pay hurts morale and shown that the benchmarking of salaries against the mean pay of peers in a sector leads to an automatic spiral in earnings.

These grasping attitudes are one more reason for the loss of faith in our institutions, the breakdown of trust across Britain and a rising fury over inequality at a time when many ordinary folk are frustrated by stagnant pay, low wages and a gradual shift towards agency work.

They also help explain that shock surge in the 2017 election campaign by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, with his carefully targeted talk of special fat-cat taxes and rampant nationalisation at the heart of his disastrous economic policy, which could wreck Britain.

This country is on a knife-edge over Brexit, which could result in a Corbyn-led government — especially at a time when the Conservatives are so weak and divided it is becoming difficult to discern what on earth they stand for — even if they still support capitalism, let alone austerity or fiscal prudence.

Public faith in bodies designed to bind the nation together has been badly tested. Sleazy self-enrichment at the taxpayer’s expense, accompanied by hideous hypocrisy of fat cats bleating over cuts, can only further erode any sense of communal spirit.

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