Harrow Borough Council's ruling Labour group last week announced it would be consulting staff on reinstating the authority's chief executive post, only months after the previous Tory administration axed the job. This week, the leaders of both groups set out their positions.
Conservative group leader Cllr Susan Hall writes: “When our previous Conservative administration abolished the chief executive position in Harrow, it wasn’t a decision taken lightly or without consideration - despite the picture Labour have attempted to paint. We weighed up the pros and cons, as anyone does when making difficult choices, and decided it was the best way forward for Harrow.
Across the country, councils are looking for inventive ways to save money, and removing chief executives is an increasingly common way to do it. In Harrow, the decision will save around £1.2 million over 4 years - a sizeable sum which prevents cuts being needed elsewhere. I think it’s inexcusable when councils only ever make savings from the bottom up - cutting services in the process - without ever looking to make efficiencies at the top.
The system we put in place in Harrow saw the statutory responsibilities of the chief executive taken on by an existing officer who is also in charge of one of the council’s main departments. A fact which may surprise some people is that the chief executive did not actually ‘run’ anything, nor were they responsible for any specific services - which in our view isn’t acceptable. One of the great ironies of this debate is that Cllr David Perry - who has been highly critical of our decision, labelling it ‘dictatorial’ - has created a cabinet position for himself which is eerily similar to the old job description for the chief executive. He’s not responsible for any major departments either, focusing instead on strategy, partnership and corporate leadership.
However, I won’t criticise that too harshly - aside from the hypocrisy of it - because I actually feel the overall direction of councils should come from their political leadership. After all, we are elected, have policy platforms, and ultimately carry the can if things go wrong. Harrow has some wonderful officers who bring expert advice and professional knowledge to decision-making, and I’m very grateful to them for doing as such. However, at the highest level officers are akin to senior civil servants - do they really need their own manager in a chief executive, paid £40,000 more than the Prime Minister? We would argue not.
I was very fortunate during my time as leader of the council to not only have guidance from a fantastic team of senior officers, but the support of an enthusiastic and talented cabinet. Maybe Cllr Perry doesn’t have that luxury, and feels he needs an additional helping hand in the form of a chief executive. However, in our view reinstating the role isn’t justifiable - not only due to the cost, but because in Harrow the Conservatives proved its responsibilities can be managed successfully by senior officers and the council’s political leadership.”