Public rewards

How much pay is enough for those in charge of council arms length companies asks Steve Burgess as a “remuneration” report goes to the City Council this week.

Scarcely a week goes by without adverse comment on the salaries of senior council officers. At a time when many people are seeing incomes fall and prices rise, I understand why it is such a hot topic. It is not helped by organisations like the self-styled “Taxpayers’ Alliance” whose criticisms of high public pay are part of a vision of stripped-down public services; with services handed over to private organisations where, ironically, massive pay awards and bonuses are rife.

However, if we want thriving public services, as I do, it is reasonable to pay higher salaries for those in public services with very high levels of responsibility – as long as they are doing their job well.

Steve BurgegssBut the same logic must apply to the council’s arms length companies. Evening News readers will be familiar with the fact that the boss of Lothian buses gets paid more than Scotland’s first minister, but he is only one of four Lothian Buses directors to receive close to or above £200,000 in pay and bonuses last year. That is why my Green MSP colleague Alison Johnstone has been calling on the company to spread its rewards more evenly among the drivers and other staff who are the backbone of the service.

But at least Lothian Buses is recognised as a high-performing company. Can the same be said for the former chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, on a full year salary of £97,000 with a £3,700 bonus in 2012-13, despite a year of questionable performance? Or the boss of council regeneration company EDI, whose pay last year topped £100,000 and exceeded that of the senior council officer to whom he reports? And I know that the Edinburgh conference centre appears to be thriving, but does that really require a top salary of £160,000 – more than the council chief executive and over three times that of the hardworking leader of Scotland’s capital city.

As council budget cuts bite into frontline services, it seems that there remains scope for some belt-tightening at the top end and the Council could act here. Although salaries are set by the boards of arms length companies, the Council can send out a clear message that salaries should be set at a level appropriate for the responsibility involved. It could also recommend an end to the routine bonus culture – so that bonuses are only paid for exceptional performance rather than for just doing your job. If arms length companies go on providing padded salaries and bonuses to their top people, the council should re-examine their core funding and consider making some cuts here too.

This blog was first published as an opinion piece by the Edinburgh Evening News