“It’s a nonsense to attack public sector pay rates in isolation”: In defence of council fat cats

Miaow. Image: Tripp/Flickr/creative commons.

Those loveable, low-tax-loving, government-hating free market fundamentalist tykes the Taxpayers Alliance (*not affiliated with actual taxpayers) are at it again.

Earlier they tweeted out the 10th edition of the Town Hall Rich List, “the most comprehensive list of council employees in the UK whose total annual remuneration exceeds £100,000”. The report actually comes from last year – something which, I'll level with you, I didn't actually realise until I'd started writing. But it's a good excuse for making an argument I've been thinking about for some time, so what the hell.

The Town Hall Rich List is a pretty easy win for pressure group like the TPA. To the first approximation, nobody likes the idea that their taxes are being used to pay people salaries they'll never earn themselves, let alone for jobs they don't even understand. What’s more, there are endless, copy-hungry local papers, plus an entire right wing-media with as great an ideological commitment to shrinking the state as the TPA itself does. Do the research, in other words, and the story is all but guaranteed to get picked up.

And it must be said that some of the pressure group's findings are a little, well, gross. The report found that, in 2015-16, there were 2,314 council employees earning over £100,000 (89 up on the last year), and 539 earning more than £150,000 (53 up). The London borough of Southwark alone paid 44 different people over £100,000.

Best of all, Sunderland City Council manages to spend £1.7m on just three employees, although this included pension contributions: the chief executive (£625,570), the director of finance (£605,958) and the “executive director of people's services”, who must be spitting blood because they only got paid £444,495. To put that number in context: the average house price in Sunderland is around £140,000.

So, yes: some of this stuff smells, rather, and hardly anyone out there is going to stick their neck out to argue that council employees should, sometimes, be paid six figure sums. Even though they work in the public sector. Even though they work for the council, of all places. What kind of weirdo is going to make that argument?

*sighs*

Okay. Look. Not all of those salaries are defensible – the Sunderland ones, in particular, feel bloody ridiculous.

But there's a sleight of hand in the TPA's report. By juxtaposing those £600,000 salaries in the North East with the fact that a couple of thousand council employees earned more than £100,000, it’s trying to suggest that both those things are equally appalling, and I’m really not sure they are. My job doesn't pay anything like £100,000 (though my DMs are open and I'm open to offers) – but I’m aware that there are an awful lot of jobs out there that do, especially in finance and management.


Are those people worth the money they are paid? I have absolutely no idea, but suspect that a lot of them don't work longer or harder than, say, their cleaners. Nonetheless, this is what the market has decided to pay them.

If councils couldn't also pay six figure salaries, what would happen? Well, for one thing, they’d struggle to recruit the sort of people who can earn six figures in the private sector. But that’s probably not the biggest problem, since most highly paid council staff, as I understand it, have climbed the ladder internally.

The bigger danger is that councils will lose senior staff to the sort of consulting and contracting firms they often find themselves working with – firms which aren't shy about paying big salaries, and whose salary bills the TPA seems a lot less interested in.

In other words, a hard salary cap in local government is a very neat way of guaranteeing that expertise flows from public to private sectors.

It also, it's worth noting, wouldn't actually save that much money. Let’s assume those 2,314 council fat cats are paid an average of £150,000 (almost certainly an over-estimate, since only a quarter of them are paid more than that, but let's go with it). Capping council salaries at £100,000 would therefore save 2,314 times £50,000, which is nearly £116m.

That sounds like a lot. It isn’t. In 2015-16, the total revenue spending by all local authorities in England (so not UK, but the vast majority of the UK) was £94.5bn.

That saving is a rounding error – just 0.12 per cent of the total budget. It’d hardly make any difference to the council financial situation – certainly not enough to justify that damaging loss of expertise and institutional memory.

So. Yes, at a time when food bank use is exploding because so many people literally can't afford to feed their kids, the idea that a tiny minority of people are earning these ridiculous sums is just gross. And yes, fat cat salaries are a problem.

But it's a problem across the entire economy – so any solution needs to look at the entire economy, too. It’s a nonsense to attack public sector pay rates in isolation. Attack high salaries in the public sector, while ignoring insane levels at the upper echelons of the private sector, and all you do is guarantee that the public sector will struggle to compete. That people and expertise will flow entirely from councils to contractors, and never the other way around. That the state will, in short, get worse at its job.

Surely that couldn't be what the Taxpayers' Alliance actually wants to happen? Could it?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.