'We're worth it': Lancashire councils defend £100,000+ salaries amid questions over council staff pay

Lancashire’s county and district councils have insisted that they are providing good value for money after new figures revealed how many staff in top jobs receive more than £100,000 per year.

Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 12:34 am
Updated Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 10:50 am

The authorities claim, variously, that their efforts in tackling the pandemic, as well as the streamlining of senior roles, mean residents can be confident that their council tax is being well spent.

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However, the Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) – which revealed the salaries in its annual Town Hall Rich List report – says residents should be the judge of that based on their own local experiences.

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Lancashire County Council and district authorities including Preston, Chorley and South Ribble have been responding to details about the pay packets of their most senior staff

The organisation acknowledges that many of those in local authority management will have “more than earned their keep” during the Covid crisis, but sets the pay packets of senior staff in the context of what it describes as “crushing” council tax rises.

It also commissioned research in which six in ten out of 2,000 people polled said they would favour a freeze or cut in pay for those at the top of the nation’s councils.

Across the UK, the number of local authority employees whose total remuneration package – including pension contributions and other benefits – tops £100,000 increased by 135 between 2018/19 and 2019/20.

However, in Lancashire, the picture was broadly static over the same period. At Lancashire County Council there were 11 people receiving more than £100,000 in 2019/20, no change from 12 months earlier.

The total pay and benefits bill for those receiving over that amount was £1.6m, up from £1.5m a year earlier.

Leading the way was County Hall’s chief executive and director of resources Angie Ridgwell, whose basic salary increased by almost £10,000 to stand at £216,000 in that year. According to the TPA, she received no other benefits or pension payments.

In addition to her responsibilities at the county council, Ms. Ridgwell also chaired the Lancashire Resilience Forum, the multi-agency organisation leading the response to the pandemic in the county, from June 2020 until just last week.

Amongst the other senior staff in the top pay bracket were education and children’s services executive director Edwina Grant, whose £168,000 total remuneration package includes a “market supplement” of £26,000.

Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, the authority’s director of public health – who has become a familiar face and voice in the county since the coronavirus struck – received £144,000, £17,500 of which was in pension contributions. He has been at the forefront of the Covid response, dealing with outbreak management, local testing arrangements and advising politicians during discussions about the tiered system of restrictions introduced by the government last autumn.

The deputy leader of Lancashire County Council, Keith Iddon, said that the authority had been fortunate to have the people that it did at the top of the organisation when it was faced with the multi-pronged challenges posed by the pandemic.

“These people have gone above and beyond what could have been expected of them and have done a marvellous job in keeping Lancashire as safe as possible and looked after the residents.

“Because we have turned the council’s finances around, we had funds to buy PPE for the care sector and money to lend to businesses to keep them secure. This is what people of that calibre can achieve,” County Cllr Iddon said.

He also contrasted the pay on offer for the top jobs at local authorities with that available in the private sector.

“If this was a business turning over nearly £1bn a year, the top management would be on five times those salaries – it’s as simple as that.

“I am a businessman myself and you always get what you pay for – and if you have the best people at the top, it makes it easy for everybody else,” said County Cllr Iddon, adding that a restructure of the top-tier of officers back in 2017 was already yielding results long before the pandemic.

The county council’s overall pay and grading structure is set by elected members and the multiple between the average full-time equivalent salary at the authority and that of the chief executive currently stands at 1:11.

A spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said: “Senior officers’ pay is intended to reflect their responsibilities, skills, and experience and ensure the best people possible are in these key positions. In recent years the senior management structure of the county council has also been streamlined.

“This approach and the hard work of officers has helped to put the council in a good position to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, ensuring services have continued to be delivered to residents despite the pandemic.”

Preston City Council has just one officer on the Town Hall Rich List – chief executive Adrian Phillips, who earned a basic salary of £107,000 and a pension contribution of £15,000.

The authority’s leader Matthew Brown said that the basic wage for the top officer post had been cut from £130,000 after the previous post-holder left the role in 2018.

“We took a political decision to do that and one of the ways we have saved money over recent years is by reducing senior management costs.

“Adrian Phillips has decades of experience within the council and has been working really well. We’re also very member-led, so we’ve got councillors who have fantastic ideas and contribute, too – and that is a good balance.

“None of these things are easy, but to maintain frontline services, a lot of the cost is within senior management.

“But we’re a real living wage employer, so everybody at the council gets at least £9.50 an hour – and, symbolically, we thought if we could reduce the [ratio] between pay at the top and bottom of the authority to about one to six, it would be a very positive example to show.

“Although we have fewer staff overall now than we did, we’re doing a lot more more with much less – things like tackling the pandemic and dealing with the climate emergency,” Cllr Brown said.

Although Chorley Council registered three staff as receiving over £100,000 in 2019/20, two of them were due to payments to departing employees.

During much of that period, Chorley’s chief executive Gary Hall – who earned £123,000, plus £17,000 in pension contributions – was also in the same post on an interim basis at neighbouring South Ribble Borough Council.

While Mr. Hall drew only the one wage, South Ribble still had a chief executive salary to pay to its own chief executive, Heather McManus who was then on special leave.

Gary Hall is now the full-time chief executive at both authorities, meaning that neither council is paying out more than £100,000 to any individual.

The two authorities are now also combining more of their back office services and have created a number of shared director posts. Under the arrangement, one council will employ the individual in the role and charge the other for a proportion of their salary.

Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley said council taxpayers were better off as a result.

“As they are [on] a shared wage between two councils, they have a larger role to fill than comparative authorities. Our contribution as a share is still less than employing an individual director at a lesser rate – thereby delivering value for money for our residents.”

A spokesperson for Chorley and South Ribble councils said of the TPA data for 2019/20: “At Chorley and South Ribble, it is the chief executive post that is the only one above £100,000 – at Chorley there are two other roles listed but this is due to members of staff who have left the authority and the TPA has included payments owed to them.

“Last year, Chorley and South Ribble Councils created a shared senior management team, which means there are now no employees at either authority being paid more than £100,000 per authority.”

John O’Connell, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance – which claims to “speak for ordinary taxpayers fed up with government waste [and] increasing taxation”, said:

“Taxpayers facing huge and hated council tax rises want to know they are getting value for money from their local authority leadership.

“At the onset of the coronavirus crisis, thousands of town hall officials were taking home huge sums. While councils were plunged into tackling the pandemic, many staff will have more than earned their keep, but households have nevertheless struggled with enormous and unpopular council tax rises.

“These figures shine a light on the town hall bosses who’ve got it right, and will enable residents to hold those who aren’t delivering value for money to account.”

This year, Lancashire County Council increased its share of council tax bills by 3.99 percent, one percent less than permitted by the government for an upper-tier authority. Preston and Chorley councils both increased their bills by the maximum 1.99 percent allowed for districts, while South Ribble froze bills.