February 6, 2019
It was often said that the comedy series Yes Minister ran very close to the truth in terms of describing the finely balanced relationship that exists between those who we elect to run the country and those who do. Essentially the same nuanced relationship should, in theory, exist within our local authorities between the elected members and council officers. But as local government has evolved over the years so has this critically important relationship – and some would say not in a good way. A former chief officer shares his reflections on what has gone wrong.
WHEN I began training in a Scottish Small Burgh in 1968, the Town Clerk was the only one of the four chief officials who lived in a bought house: the others lived in council houses, a perk of their appointment, and an indication of the salaries paid at the time.
Councillors had their expenses reimbursed when on official business. Their priority (both Labour, and SNP/Conservative administrations from 1968-75) was to keep the rents and rates as low as possible.
Councillors saw their role as approving policy that the officials would implement and (apart from the allocation of council houses) would rarely get involved in the day-to day running of the burgh. Any chief official who was unhappy at a council decision could table a formal letter at the council meeting and if necessary, have it entered verbatim into the minutes. Committee reports were full of detail and published after approval by the full council. Local newspaper reporters regularly attended these meetings, recorded the debates and the decisions taken. Councillors and officials had a healthy respect for each other and if any of the latter fell foul of the former there was always the option of moving to one of the many other Scottish burghs that existed at the time.
The 1975 reorganisation of Scottish local government changed it all. The Strathclyde mega-council resulted in significant pay rises for many of the staff merging from the former burghs and counties. Rather than a council house and a contributory pension to look forward to, internal promotion became the objective for many staff and that developed a different attitude. Within a decade too councillors were being paid allowances for attending meetings and also as committee chairs/conveners. For some, it offered an opportunity to become a career councillor: not just a desire to serve the public. This in turn led to councillors starting to get more closely involved (older officials felt it was more like interference) in operational issues. Sometimes when an official offered professional advice that didn’t suit the councillors’ objectives they’d be asked to “rethink” and if unable (or unwilling) to do so, might find their aspirations for future promotion were thwarted.
A further reorganisation in 1996 hasn’t helped. Back-bench councillors are now “earning” more than £16,000 a year while others get a lot more. The consequence is that some councillors feel the need to “be seen to be involved/in charge” rather than letting the officials get on with it. Committee reports are nowadays couched in such vague terms that there’s little substance or detail for local press to report. It’s now difficult to identify just who formulated policy, whether officials offered professional guidance, and if that guidance was considered or not.
Is it any wonder then that a situation like the women’s equal pay debacle has ended in political point-scoring over who is responsible for Glasgow City Council having to pay out £500million to settle a long-standing dispute? Is there a paper trail for the process that led to the decision to go to court rather than settle? Were the council’s legal and HR chief officers asked for their advice?
Or have we reached a stage where council chief officials are nowadays content to see the politicians ignore their professional advice rather than jeopardise their promotion prospects and in turn their pension pots? And if that happens, both sides have to keep quiet rather than let the truth emerge. And that’s a sad day for the council tax-payer.
The author was a chief officer in three Scottish district councils and a unitary authority between 1984 and 2006.