Tom Richmond: £150k, six weeks’ holiday and perks: Welcome to the local authority gravy train

NICE work if you can get it! Even before Yorkshire’s devolution deal is signed off by George Osborne, the latest gravy train for local government bureaucrats was leaving the station.

John Prescott led a botched attempt to introduce regional assemblies in 2004
John Prescott led a botched attempt to introduce regional assemblies in 2004

As a patchwork of ad hoc proposals were being submitted to the Treasury, the West Yorkshire Combined Local Authority – a body comprising the county’s five town halls as well as the Leeds City-Region Local Economic Partnership and York Council – was advertising for a managing director.

The salary package? A mere £150,000 and inclusive of “perks” such as free travel in West Yorkshire, annual leave of six weeks in addition to statutory bank holidays, a relocation package of £8,000 and use of a discounted holiday accommodation scheme.

Of course, I accept that this is the going rate – even if the generous holiday entitlement and free travel is at odds with the everyday experience of most families – and that such packages will have to be paid if top entrepreneurs are to play an active role in the economic renewal of this region so Yorkshire can make the most of the Government’s devolution and Northern Powerhouse strategies.

But this does not appear to be the case. To me, this has the hallmarks of a job being created by the politicians for the political elite. According to the remit, the successful candidate will be required to “have a consistent track record in leading improvement within a political environment”. They also need to demonstrate “tenacity and resilience” – I’m not surprised at these requirements – while “embedding and promoting” the Combined Authority’s “culture and ethos”. I have no idea what this means, but perhaps you do.

It does not end here. The new head of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which is responsible for economic growth, skills training, transport infrastructure and affordable housing, will oversee a Director of Programme of Delivery, Acting Executive Director of Transport, LEP Director and Head of Economic Strategy and Director of Resources. In turn, these individuals head teams of project directors, managers and other posts which are set out in a bewildering flow-chart. And this is before the input of six council chief executives, like Tom Riordan in Leeds and Kersten England in Bradford, and elected councillors, is factored in . I can’t see this structure speeding up the decision-making process, or accelerating schemes like the Leeds Trolleybus.

Why does this matter? This is precisely the type of taxpayer-funded empire-building that gives local politics a bad name. Just think of the total cost if this profligate structure – “talking shop” might be a better description – is replicated in triplicate across Yorkshire because of a failure to seize the moment and create a single Yorkshire-wide body that can make a substantial difference to the area’s economic prospects.

For, while there has been a sharp focus on the national cost of politics following the MPs’ expenses scandal, local government has escaped such scrutiny – it is becoming the norm for this region’s council chiefs to earn more than the Prime Minister while many councillors now treat their responsibilities as a full-time career rather than a duty motivated by civic pride. Could it be that a Yorkshire-wide approach to devolution was not advanced because too many decision-makers had vested interests?

This the fundamental flaw with devolution, whether it be John Prescott’s botched attempt to introduce regional assemblies in 2004 or Yorkshire voters rejecting the concept of elected mayors three years ago. Taxpayers believe, with conviction, that the gravy train needs to be halted in order to keep local government costs in check, and that this is even more vital when so many councils are pleading poverty.

Irrespective of whether the region has to accept the mayoral model of government so favoured by the Chancellor, questions need to be asked about whether organisations like West Yorkshire Combined Authority need a £150,000-a-year managing director when each of the councils under its jurisdiction already has a chief executive on a comparable salary. Can one of the postholders not be persuaded to take on the MD’s duties in addition? After all, it is what headteachers are now required to do if they have a failing school added to their responsibilities.

I accept that there will have to be some change as the city-regions are reconfigured – that goes without saying – but it should not justify local government leaders creating convoluted new tiers of management which are not fully accountable to voters – one of the flaws with regional development agencies like Yorkshire Forward was that they lost their economic focus because their governance structures were inadequate.

Under no circumstances should the total cost of local and regional government increase – efficiencies have to be found if mayors, managing directors and so on are deemed necessary. Yet that’s the problem. There was no mention of this in the West Yorkshire Combined Authority advertisement as the gravy train gathered steam. Is it any wonder, therefore, that some business leaders have been so reluctant to help get the county back on track? Why would they when they’re dealing with councils who put procedure before prosperity?