Like many people of my age, I sometimes ask myself whether I took the right path in life. Would I have been happier if, when young, I had set my heart on becoming a council official?
It certainly didn’t occur to me, or anyone advising me, that I should do so. In those days, self-effacing town clerks still ran councils. Though they usually seemed pretty competent, they were not especially well paid. Being an official was not the route to riches.
Around a quarter of a century ago, this began to change beyond anyone’s expectations. In a relatively short period of time, working for a council in a senior capacity became extraordinarily lucrative.
Whereas in a previous era council officials had worked largely out of a sense of public duty, in the hope of a decent watch and a passable pension at the end of it all, such people now began to receive bumper rewards more commonly associated with the City.
Do I exaggerate? I don’t think so. The admirable TaxPayers’ Alliance has just revealed that in the financial year 2019-20, the number of local government officials earning above £100,000 rose to more than 2,800. This was an increase of 5 per cent over the previous year.
No fewer than 693 of them were on salaries of £150,000 or more — roughly equivalent to the pay of the Prime Minister — which was 26 more than a year earlier.
New role: Martin Yardley now works at Warwick University
Essex County Council County Hall in Chelmsford
Essex alone boasted 40 council officials earning more than £100,000. Tell me, dear citizens of that sometimes unfairly overlooked county. Do you have stunningly few potholes, efficient weekly bin collections and wonderfully illuminated streets? I doubt it.
The best paid person in the national annual town hall rich list was Martin Yardley, Coventry’s former deputy chief executive. Not even the chief executive! He pocketed £573,660.
That was made up of a £151,991 salary, a pension payment of £26,559, plus an ‘early retirement’ payment of £395,110. Early retirement for Mr Yardley turned out to involve a well-paid job as a business development manager at nearby Warwick University.
Now it is certainly not my intention to drive readers into paroxysms of rage. We must all try to stay calm. But I can’t help pointing out that, like millions of others, I recently received notice of my council tax for the new financial year.
The average levy has risen by 4.4 per cent in England, around five times the level of inflation. This follows inflation-busting council tax increases of 3.9 per cent in the year to April 2020, 4.7 per cent to April 2019, and 5.1 per cent to April 2018. All under a Tory Government, which one might have hoped would resist higher taxes.
The truth is that after years of austerity, during which highly paid council officials were obliged at least to go through the motions of tightening their belts, they have once again boarded the gravy train — at our expense.
It is admittedly true that the 5 per cent increase in the number of those earning more than £100,000 relates to the financial year ending in April 2020, when the pandemic had barely begun.
Big bucks: Rachael Shimmin
But I think we can be absolutely certain that these people won’t have suffered any pay cuts while labouring heroically at home. On the contrary, my bet is that we will discover in due course that they have awarded themselves even greater salaries.
When life returns to normal, they will still be receiving fantastic amounts of money in the knowledge that when they retire they will get handsome index-linked pensions for as long as they continue to draw breath.
Meanwhile, lots of ordinary folk, including thousands of poorly paid people working for councils in more lowly positions, will find that their prospects have been blighted by the ravages of Covid.
How is it that 2,800 council employees have managed to get themselves paid more than £100,000 a year? It is not as though local government is renowned for its efficiency and competence.
The same question could be asked of the new class of administrators who have taken over our universities, manage the NHS and fill the upper echelons of the BBC — while dipping their hands into the public coffers.
Forty years ago, universities were mostly run by public- spirited dons who didn’t expect to be paid whopping amounts for their time and trouble (the going rate for a thoroughly modern university vice-chancellor can now be as much as £500,000 a year).
Similarly, where hospitals were once overseen by matrons and senior doctors, they are now run by legions of highly remunerated and sometimes not very able administrators, who are often paid more than the doctors they push about.
The same is true of the publicly funded BBC. Once programme-makers held sway. Now there are layers of senior executives with sometimes doubtful roles and always massive salaries.
There is a chief customer officer on £366,000 a year, a director of content on £401,000 a year, and a chief technology and product officer on £347,000. The Beeb used to rub along without such lavishly rewarded magnificos, and almost certainly produced better programmes.
High salary: Fran Beasley
Some will assert that life has grown much more complicated. They will claim that in the modern world it is naive to expect town clerks to run councils or matrons to supervise hospitals. Highly paid professionals are needed.
The people who make this case most loudly are, of course, the members of our new administrative elite, who insist on their unique qualities and demand astronomical salaries from governments, which happily pay up — with our taxes.
I am highly sceptical. I don’t believe 40 officials on more than £100,000 a year are needed to run the county of Essex, which has fewer than two million inhabitants. I submit that it could be done better for a lot less.
Let me cite the Armed Forces. They haven’t imported droves of administrators. Though starved of resources, they are among the most competently managed bodies in the country. Granted, with its out-of-control procurement programmes, the bloated Ministry of Defence is another kettle of fish.
Our superb Armed Forces are run by the kind of people who have always run them — the officer class, which is impelled by a sense of duty and public service that has vanished in many parts of our country.
Moreover, there is no pay inflation in the upper echelons of the Army, RAF and Navy. Generals, air marshals and admirals receive in real terms roughly what they always have, which is a lot less that some council officials.
I realise this Government has a lot on its hands but I wish, when the pandemic has passed, that it would address the issue of excessive pay in the public sector. It could do no better than to start with councils.
But I shan’t be holding my breath. If you want to be rich in modern Britain without having to work too hard, don’t think of starting your own business. Join the administrative class. It is our new aristocracy.
Loving parents — of children who need not, indeed should not, be massively bright — have only to point to the local council offices to show their offspring the path to easy riches.