Hambleton council chief bonuses typical of culture of reward without merit - David Behrens

When was the last time one of your neighbours put down his pint and started waxing lyrical about the wonderful job your local council was doing?

Never – that’s when. On the rare occasions the Town Hall crops up in conversation at all, it’s because someone is complaining about the rates, the state of the roads or the unreliability of the binmen.

So it is a source of some wonder that councils themselves are able to judge their officials on a completely different scale of competence.

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This week, the soon-to-be-abolished Hambleton authority in North Yorkshire was forced to defend paying its chief executive and four senior officers nearly £90,000 in “performance-related” bonuses – some of the highest in the country.

You won't catch council bosses doing bin rounds for bonuses, says David Behrens.You won't catch council bosses doing bin rounds for bonuses, says David Behrens.
You won't catch council bosses doing bin rounds for bonuses, says David Behrens.

Had they justified these exceptional rewards by working through their weekends to fill all the potholes by themselves? Or by putting on yellow jackets and driving bin wagons to alleviate the staff shortages?

Not likely; they were simply taking advantage of an efficiency yardstick of their own invention.

The council leader justified the bonuses by claiming that Hambleton “outperformed” other districts, having delivered a new crematorium and the most up-to-date “local plan” in North Yorkshire. But it’s a low benchmark indeed that allows accomplishments like those to be considered exceptional. In most organisations they would be just about good enough to spare someone the sack.

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It’s not untypical in a sector that seems to exist in a parallel universe to the rest of us. And the differences are becoming increasingly clear. Indeed, they are the most transparent aspect of some administrations.

Sheffield Council, for instance, remains as mired in secrecy as it was a few years ago when it signed a £2bn street management deal that saw mature roadside trees needlessly chainsawed.

It’s currently investigating whether Kate Josephs, its new chief executive, broke the law by attending a leaving party from her old job in Whitehall – but it won’t even say who it has hired to conduct the investigation.

Playing fast and loose with lockdown law when the rest of us were protecting each other is unforgivable anyway – but it is Ms Josephs’ old job title that tells us most about the fantasy world our public servants inhabit.

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‘Director-general of the Covid-19 Task Force’ was the sign on her Whitehall door – a puffed-up name that could have come straight out of a James Bond movie. Government and council departments love pretentious titles like that because they think it makes them look dynamic, when in fact all they’ve done is to convene a committee, which is what they always do. ‘Madam chairman of the Masks Sub-committee’ doesn’t have the same ring, but it amounts to the same thing.

Ms Josephs’ leaving party has come under the scrutiny of Scotland Yard but her new employers in Sheffield don’t know if she has been fined, because she apparently doesn’t have to tell them – a travesty which makes a nonsense of the investigation into her conduct.

The irony is that the roll-out of vaccines – in which her “task force” presumably had a hand – was the one thing in recent years that the public sector is acknowledged to have got right. Allowing themselves a licence to organise a back-slapping party undid whatever good work they had overseen.

It’s the same culture of reward without merit that gave rise to those bonuses in Hambleton, which those of us who have had to hold down more competitive jobs in the private arena find so abhorrent. And it’s compounded by the continued insistence by officers and politicians of putting their priorities ahead of ours.

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While we want to see the spiralling cost of living brought under control, they are obsessed with privatising Channel 4 and pursuing other issues that were on no-one’s agenda.

It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that the ruling Conservatives have all but lost their considerable polling lead in vast swathes of Yorkshire – especially in rural parts like Hambleton.

Next year, a new single-tier council will replace the authority there and in six other districts, and it would be nice to think that a new broom will sweep away some of the old complacency.

But let’s wait until we see the chief executive helping out on the bin round before we jump to conclusions.