Changing places

By Dan Peters | 06 October 2015

The cuts to local government over the last five years have been brutal and largely focused on back office efficiencies.

With councils doing everything they can to avoid touching frontline services it’s no surprise that senior management has been in the firing line – very often literally.

Under the last government, communities secretary Eric Pickles seemingly took pleasure from verbally attacking senior council managers.

From claims about clandestine ‘boosts’ to private expenses to calls for example-setting pay reductions, Sir Eric very publicly played the role of a top-tier officer basher.

Disregarding the bluster and bravado surrounding the subject, councils have largely responded sensibly, with many carrying out a senior management restructure or even more than one.

City of York Council recently announced it would carry out the third major review of its senior management structure in six years.

This may sound excessive but the cuts that have prompted such behaviour have been unprecedented.

Now, extensive research carried out by The MJ can reveal the full picture and how the face of senior management has transformed since 2010.

And the results from the Freedom of Information Act responses we received reveal the number of senior officers has dropped by almost a quarter (23.2%).

Of course, there were some councils where the change was even greater and others that had already streamlined.

At one extreme, Cornwall Council’s top team was slashed by more than a half from 41 to 19.

The drop was part of a September 2014 cull of hundreds of staff whose jobs were axed amid a bid to save around a third of the council’s budget over four years.

Sandwell MBC’s senior officers were whittled down from a 33-strong team including directors with portfolios that featured investment, housing services and spatial regeneration, to a more slimmed-down group of 12 with much broader roles.

And North Tyneside MBC went from having 32 chiefs, including directors of development, communities and organisation improvement to a team of 14 with a chief executive, deputy chief executive, director of public health, strategic manager for finance and 10 heads.

Some councils responded by merging their senior management team with another authority.

Forest Heath DC’s nine-strong team and St Edmundsbury BC’s dozen chiefs was shaved down to a West Suffolk leadership team of nine, a shared structure headed up by joint chief executive Ian Gallin and two directors.

Mr Gallin said at the time: ‘Having directors managing heads of service who then manage service managers is simply too bureaucratic.

‘This will be a corporate leadership team whose members will not be there to check staff are doing their jobs, but to empower and enable them to do their jobs.’

A partnership between Christchurch BC and East Dorset DC, which started in 2011, meant 17 top posts were reduced to eight across the two authorities.

And in 2012, Chiltern and South Bucks DCs acknowledged the value of sharing management and services – for financial, quality and resilience reasons – leading to a joint chief executive, director of services and director of resources.

Less radically, East Lindsey DC and Boston BC now share a deputy chief executive and monitoring officer while Southend and Thurrock councils have a single director of public health.

At the other end, almost 80 councils reported no change in their senior management headcount – though for some this was because they had already foreseen the bleak future and wielded the axe in advance of the coalition cuts.

When our research started, South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse DCs already operated a joint structure while Redditch BC and Bromsgrove DC had just introduced a shared management team ready for the start of 2010.

At this point, according to our data, the average council senior management team was made up of 8.6 full time equivalents.

Five years later this figure stood at 6.6 though across different types of council there was some variation amid the average 23.2% drop.

The largest average decrease was the 29% reported by unitaries, with the typical top team falling from 11.3 to 8.

This was followed by counties, where the average 27% decrease meant 10.3 senior managers became 7.5.

Then it was mets, with a 24% fall (12.2 to 9.2), London boroughs with 23% (8.7 to 6.7) and districts with 21% (7.3 to 5.8).

The reductions in Scotland (21.5%) and Wales (19.7%) were slightly less marked than England’s 24%.

Change has been even more drastic in Northern Ireland, where 26 local authorities that had delivered services for almost 50 years were formally abolished and replaced with a leaner system of 11 super-councils in April.

A similar fate could soon befall Wales, where public services minister Leighton Andrews wants to reduce the current 22 councils to eight or nine.

And in England, local government reorganisation is rarely off the agenda for long, with few brave enough to predict its shape in 2020.

But even without drastic overhauls local government has been able to respond to the sector’s changing landscape and priorities.

With the transfer of the statutory public health role from the NHS to local authorities and Smith Square campaigning for an enhanced role for all councils and elected members in health, the issue has shot up the agenda.

This is reflected in our data, with the number of senior posts with health in the title shooting up from 97 to 151.

The coalition government also established local enterprise partnerships (LEP) to replace the regional development agencies.

As a result, chief executive of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnerships, Sandra Rothwell, is also head of economic development at Cornwall Council.

Sharing posts across public sector organisations is not a new thing – for example, Southwark LBC’s director of health and community services was also chief executive of the primary care trust in 2010. But it is likely to become more common, even though progress towards creating a single public sector pot has been slow.

Our data also reflects some of the latest fashionable terms and the fact that strategic directors are now fewer in number and have much wider remits.

Mentions of ‘commercial’ in job titles almost doubled from 11 to 21, the number of jobs featuring the word ‘economic’ went from 34 to 47, references to ‘commissioning’ increased from 30 to 42, and instances of ‘growth’ leapt from 8 to 23.

And as generalists have increasingly replaced engineers and surveyors, the number of roles with ‘place’ in their title grew from 23 to 49.

The sector has also witnessed an explosion in the number of chief operating officers (COO), a post well established in the private sector.

With attempts to cut back on the size of top teams, councils striving to become more commercial and the shift towards a more external focus for chief executives, COOs are left back in the office running the ranch.

Only Leicester City Council had a COO in our 2010 dataset, but there were 21 of them by 2015.

Interestingly, most COOs did not hold any of the statutory responsibilities such as Section 151 officer, head of paid service or monitoring officer.

In the other direction, with prime minister David Cameron wanting every school to leave local authority control, job titles with ‘learning’ dropped from 46 to 26 and those with ‘school’ fell from 19 to 10.

Some buzzwords dropped in popularity, with ‘customer’ fading from 103 to 69, and ‘regeneration’ waning from 106 to 77.

As for the more worrying trend of councils removing the post of chief executive and sharing the role and functions among senior officers, it’s a variable picture.

A number of councils are now chief executive-free but there are also a few that have since changed their minds and reversed the decision.

Hammersmith & Fulham LBC last year pulled out of shared chief executive arrangements with West London neighbour Kensington & Chelsea RLBC following a review into its tri-borough arrangements.

Shortly afterwards Labour reintroduced the role on winning back control of Harrow LBC and more recently Northumberland CC reinstated the position, less than two years after it was scrapped.

Despite our expanded knowledge about the last five years, the future picture of local government senior management is far from clear.

For word clouds showing the most common words used in job titles in 2010 and 2015 click here.

Data analysis undertaken by Jeremy Burton

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