Mark Conrad 26 August 2010

Exclusive: Coalition accused of ‘politicising’ town hall officials

Former communities secretary John Denham has attacked his successor Eric Pickles’ plan to combine councils’ leader and chief executive roles, warning it would ‘politicise’ town hall managers, undermine public probity and could even breach laws.

In a letter to Mr Pickles, seen by The MJ, Mr Denham expresses ‘concerns’ at Department for Communities and Local Government plans for ‘executive leaders’ across town halls and demands the secretary of state answers thirty-four questions on the controversial proposal.

John Denham
John Denham is 'deeply concerned'  about removing boundaries between the non-political and impartial chief executive and the political leadership
Mr Denham told The MJ the coalition’s plan would compromise the traditional independence of council staff: ‘I’m deeply concerned that the well understood boundaries between the non-political and impartial chief executive and the political leadership of local authorities are going to be thrown away by Eric Pickles,’ he said.

‘This has huge implications for staff who work for local authorities, who will now be expected to act in party political ways that they have never previously been asked to do, and which chief executives have protected them from.’

Mr Pickles told The MJ in June he considered council chief executives a ‘non-job’ and encouraged town hall leaders to assume responsibility for many of their functions. He will shortly announce plans for a new generation of council “super-mayors”, with leader and executive responsibilities, through the forthcoming Localism Bill.

A CLG spokeswoman said Mr Pickles' views the use of a local executive leader and chief executive as ‘unsustainable, especially in mayoral systems’.

‘Having chief executives and elected leaders often in practice responsible for the same thing is both expensive and unnecessary,’ she said.

But Mr Denham warned that while saving councils’ cash was ‘important’ during the spending squeeze, it should not come at the ‘expense of professionalism and impartiality across local authorities’.

Shortly after Mr Pickles floated his idea to the Local Government Association conference in June, Rugby Borough Council announced its Conservative leader, Cllr Craig Humphrey, would become responsible for elements of its vacant chief executive’s post. But Mr Denham’s letter questions such plans.

‘The Rugby merger and your comments raise a number of concerns particularly around the politicisation of local government civil servants and issues of probity,’ it states.

The former CLG secretary questions the department’s interpretation of the 1972 Local Government Act, which appears to prohibit local authorities from employing someone who has been a councillor within the past 12 months. The act states: ‘A person shall, so long as he is, and for twelve months after he ceases to be, a member of a local authority, be disqualified for being appointed by that authority to any paid office, other than to the office of chairman or vice-chairman.’

The1985 Local Government Act removed a clause allowing leaders to assume the role of chief executive – leaving local government practitioners unsure about the legal status of full-blown executive leaders.

Mr Denham asks Mr Pickles: ‘Will you be revising the law?’ The letter also warns against ‘politicisation’ of town hall officials through an ‘increase [in] political involvement in the day-to-day running of the council’. Traditionally, chief executive posts are ‘politically restricted’, meaning incumbents cannot participate in political activities.

Eric Pickles believes the use of local executive leader and chief executive can be ‘unsustainable'
Mr Denham asks: ‘Chief executives are typically expected to advise and assist all councillors regardless of political affiliation, how do you see this taking place under a merged role?’

Local probity and accountability concerns are also raised. Mr Denham asks: ‘Do you think additional or different monitoring or redress mechanisms are required, or do you think a merged chief executive and leader should be able to investigate complaints with a political element?’

The former minister cites the coalition’s plan to scrap the Standards Board and Audit Commission as exacerbating this threat to public sector probity. Supporters of Mr Pickles’ plan claim ministers have merely proposed allowing councils to scrap the chief executive’s role – not necessarily merging posts with the leader - and that statutory elements of the chief’s role, such as the ‘head of paid service’, could simply transfer to other officials.

Rugby BC believes its new arrangement would not breach any laws.

A spokeswoman said: ‘Rugby BC has decided not to appoint a chief executive. There is no legal requirement [and]…there never was any proposal that Cllr Craig Humphrey would be appointed chief executive.

‘All councils must appoint an officer to be their head of paid service. In Rugby this was Simon Warren [the former chief executive] before his departure. It is now Andrew Gabbitas, who is executive director.’

The spokeswoman said Cllr Humphrey would focus on ‘areas of overlap’ between the two roles, particularly ‘the formulation of change programmes, strategy and policy’.
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