Thursday, 5 January 2012

House Hits Out at Hampshire Hogs

"Now is not the time to increase the size of the Cabinet,"  according to Hedge End Councillor Keith House - who is also leader of the Lib Dem opposition at Hampshire County Council and County member for Hamble-le-Rice.  Cllr House was responding to County Supremo Ken Thornber's decision to appoint Basingstoke Councillor Stephen Reid as his new "executive member for strategic development".

It is certainly a fair comment that at a time of austerity, public service cuts and redundancies, it is politically inept even to give the appearance of manufacturing a job for a party crony, particularly when it has been done - according to the Echo report here - without any public debate or consultation.

Unfortunately attention has been partly deflected away from the substance of the report into a party political handbag fight over whether the Conservatives have been unduly secretive or whether the Lib Dems have breached a confidence.  The gory details of who sent which email to whom are documented by Eastleigh News here.

Cllr House goes on to claim that with a reduced budget and fewer staff it should be possible to run Hampshire with a smaller cabinet.   Again, that is a fair comment, but it does raise the question what is the best size for a cabinet. 

Let's take Eastleigh Borough Council as a good example.

Cllr House is the executive leader of Eastleigh in much the same way that Cllr Thornber is the leader at Hampshire.  When introducing efficiency savings in 2011, Eastleigh chose to keep its cabinet the same size and instead to reduce the number of local area committee meetings to be held in public and to sack two of its scrutiny panels. 

Eastleigh in consequence has eight cabinet members for a council of 44 members.  Even with Cllr Reid's elevation to executive status Hampshire will only have ten cabinet members for a council of 78.  If Eastleigh were to reduce its cabinet to match Hampshire in proportion to the council size, Cllr House would have to sack two of his Lib Dem cabinet colleagues.

Hampshire estimates it spends about £1,913 million on services(1), so just under £200 million per cabinet member.  In comparison, Eastleigh's budget of £61 million works out at less than £8 million per cabinet member.

Eastleigh employs about 500 people, which gives a cabinet member to employee ratio of one to 60.  Hampshire, with an employee count of about 40,000, has one cabinet member for every 4,000 employees.

It was perhaps unwise of Cllr House to draw attention to reduced budget and employee headcount in calling for a smaller cabinet when Eastleigh's own budget and staff are so much smaller than Hampshire's and his own cabinet is almost the same size as Cllr Thornber's.  Direct comparisons are difficult to make, but when there are orders of magnitude in the difference between the two councils, it is justifiable to ask whether one or two of Eastleigh's portfolios could be combined in the interest of further efficiencies.

Cllr House is quite right to point out inappropriate spending by Hampshire and to question unnecessary secrecy in the County's decision making processes, but he needs to make sure his own back yard at Eastleigh is beyond reproach as well.

(1) All figures are taken from the councils' own web sites
(Picture credit Joy Schoenberger)