Councillors in charge at Oxfordshire County Council have been urged to proceed with caution when conducting reviews of executive pay.
The warning came during a discussion of the authority’s pay policy statement in which the salary of the county’s incoming chief executive was raised.
Dr Martin Reeves has been recruited to the role on a salary of £225,000 per year, 13 per cent more than the £199,000 at the top end of the range when the post was initially advertised and 18.6 per cent more than the £189,700 paid to Stephen Chandler, his predecessor who filled the role on an interim basis.
Leader Councillor Liz Leffman (Lib Dem, Charlbury & Wychwood) said the rise had come about during “a very thorough benchmarking exercise” undertaken by the remuneration committee, a small team of councillors from all parties tasked with looking into staff pay.
She added that the process was “something we probably need to do across the board in this council because it has not been done for a very long time” and that it is “the right time to do that” now Dr Reeves is in place.
Councillor David Bartholomew (Con, Sonning Common), the shadow cabinet member for finance who held the purse strings before the Tories lost power in 2021, made clear he was not criticising the process that appointed Dr Reeves but issued a general warning that such exercises can lead to spiralling costs.
“We had a very fine interim chief executive and have undertaken this benchmarking exercise to break through the appropriate level to get the best, we said, and we are going to start benchmarking again,” he said.
“The trouble with benchmarking is that it is a ratchet process. When the next neighbouring council recruits a chief executive, they will look at Oxfordshire and see we pay £225,000; they will want at least as good as that and will have to pay more.
“If Councillor Leffman goes ahead with benchmarking throughout the organisation, please be mindful of the unintended consequences of that for taxpayers everywhere, not just in Oxfordshire but nationally.”
Councillor John Howson (Lib Dem, St Margaret’s) had previously noted how unregulated pay awards for senior officers overseeing academy schools – sometimes many of them across different counties – had left councils between a rock and a hard place when chasing the best candidates.
He highlighted four multi-academy trusts with headquarters in Swindon, Peterborough, Surrey and Heathrow “that are responsible for secondary schools in Oxfordshire” paying chief officers more than Oxfordshire’s director of children’s services – “and in one case more than double”.
“This is relevant because our education functions as a county will become more challenging because the Tory government has failed to cap multi-academy trust officers’ pay,” he said.
“Recruiting staff into local government, already difficult, will become even more challenging for our education service.
“Paying extreme salaries also means higher central costs imposed on Oxfordshire schools and therefore less cash to spend on Oxfordshire pupils.
“That is why I think Tory policies are really mean – more pay for those at the top while holding down the pay of those educating our children.”