I doubt if any of us who signed last week's letter to The Times imagined that it would leave its target, Eric Pickles, chastened. But his announcement today that the government will require councils to hold a public debate on any appointments of officers on a salary of £100,000 or more removes any lingering doubt.
There are a few points that arise here. I have a gut feeling (though sadly not enough time to research) that in my working lifetime salaries of high earners and senior managers have gone up proportionately more than those at lower end of the salary scale. I have enough lingering leftist sentiment to feel that this is not a good thing and ideally ought to be reversed.
However, local government can hardly be expected on its own to counter what is doubtless a national or international trend across public and private sectors. It ought to go without saying that local authorities can be large and complex organisations, often the largest employers in their areas, and deliver a range of vital services.
Senior local government managers are not part of an unofficial institute of pen pushers and petty bureaucrats. Many of them will be qualified in professional disciplines, at least some of which (law, town planning, chartered surveying, accountancy etc.) have a mature market in the private sector where they could earn more. Whether one attributes their decision to work in local government to an altruistic commitment to public service or to an inability to cope with the alleged extra pressure of the private sector, local authorities surely have to offer reasonably competitive salaries. Unless they really are supposed to recruit only from the least bright and able members of any given profession.
I doubt if many of us who serve as councillors want to pay senior managers more than is necessary to secure appointees who are capable of doing the job effectively, and there isn't an intrinsic problem with councillors having to justify their decisions in public.
But why is this restricted only to local government? If Mr Pickles' concern is to ensure transparency and accountability for high earners in the public sector, then why not apply this to all levels of government and state employment? Last year the government published a list of civil servants on high salaries. Why shouldn't each of these, when appointed, have their appointment and pay voted on by an open parliamentary debate?
The same might apply to those working for arms of the state outside central or local government. Last year there was a local controversy over the salary of the chief executive of the West Herts Hospital Trust, Dr Jan Filochowski, who apparently earned £246,000 in 2008/09. Now I have nothing against Dr Filochowski, under whose leadership the hospital trust's performance has undoubtedly improved. But he appears to earn far more than anyone working for Watford Borough Council and more, even, than the chief executive of Hertfordshire County Council. Why should his salary not be voted on by democratically-elected representatives who are responsible for the service (again this would mean parliament)? [Note here: I realise that the provision is not to be retrospective so I mean his successor if he were to leave his post].
I suspect local government already has more democratic scrutiny of top salary earners than other parts of the public sector - senior appointments have to be confirmed by full council meetings, albeit not currently in public session. If Mr Pickles is seriously concerned to have accountability for salaries of high earners in the public sector, he should get the government to practice what it preaches and give MPs a vote on the individual salaries of senior civil servants. Otherwise this is just a piece of humbug and yet another attack on local democracy.