Today, Manchester City Council announced that it is to reduce its staff by 2,000 people, or 17% of its workforce. It clings, with I imagine more hope than expectation, to the notion that these redundancies can be voluntary, or based on early retirement, rather than compulsory. In truth, that will be impossible. The decision is a direct consequence of government policy. The council had arrived at a planned and measured policy for reducing its workforce; it had brought its trades unions with it; it was obliging its staff to work more efficiently and more flexibly. But these plans assumed a reduction in this year of £60M, a figure which has now been escalated to £110M by the explicit decision of the Coalition. It is no longer possible to manage such a reduction in a sensible way, either in terms of its consequences for staff, or for the citizens of Manchester (many of whom are in both categories, of course.)
Manchester is no lunatic red administration. It has disposed of the vast majority of its housing stock to independent housing associations. It has worked closely with commerce to regenerate its economy. It won, and brilliantly delivered, the Commonwealth Games in 2002. It does not see itself as a monolithic provider of Soviet-style drabness to its hapless citizens. Rather, it believes in a vibrant partnership with the private sector, as an enabler of its people, not as an oppressive and patronising stifler of them. It has a very highly paid, but in the eyes of many a charismatic and successful, Chief Executive. And it is he who, in a disgraceful and charmless personal attack, Grant Shapps has today chosen to castigate.
Mr Shapps, whose grasp of basic arithmetic is clearly extremely shaky, has suggested that in some way it is Sir Howard Bernstein’s salary which has left Manchester in its financial predicament. That salary is, apparently, £100,000 greater than the Prime Minister’s. So what? I am not aware that Sir Howard inherited a massive fortune from his father, and so he probably has an somewhat greater need for his salary than does Mr Cameron, for whom it is a nice little addition to his pocket-money. But of course this new unit for measuring salaries – multiples of a Prime Ministerial wedge – is only ever applied to the public sector. Not, it seems, to bankers, as a purely random comparison.
The likes of the Chief Executive of Manchester City Council earn a lot of money by the standards of their workers, but that comparison is as nothing to that between a bank CEO’s remuneration and the pitiful sums paid to the tellers at a local branch. Rather more to the point, the chief officers of local authorities have not presided over the gross incompetence that has resulted in billions of pounds of public money being required to bail out the banks, whose top people will once more be paid stratospheric bonuses that make Sir Howard Bernstein look like he’s paid no more than a street cleaner. The government has given up trying to do anything about that, I note.
But, Grant Shapps is saying, please don’t look at any of that. Don’t look at what’s happening to Manchester’s workforce, or to its citizens. Rather, concentrate on my prestidigitation over here: look at Sir Howard’s bulging pay packet. The crowd gasps as the lady is sawn in two. Bravo, Mr Shapps!
But suggesting that a few hundred thousand pounds paid to a successful civic chief executive makes any material difference to that council’s efficiency is as ridiculous as suggesting that its firefighters abandon their tenders and start trying to put out the fires in burning buildings by pissing on them. In fact, piss only makes one appearance in this context, and Mr Shapps is taking it.