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When the clerk ruled
Local Government Chronicle – 20 October 2005

The role of council chief executive in some form or other goes back 800 years. But a lot has changed since the days of town clerks. Mark Smulian looks back

There seemed no limit to the powers of Archibald Glen when your correspondent was growing up in Southend-on-Sea.

Mr Glen was the town clerk, and his notices stipulated where residents might walk, cycle and play games. In one curiously worded injunction on the pier sun deck, he even urged "do not throw, people below".

Town clerks were respected, invariably lawyers, and enjoyed security of tenure. Modern chief executives might be respected but fewer than ever are lawyers and their average length of tenure is "getting shorter all the time", according to Alastair Robertson, secretary of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives.

The term 'chief executive' replaced that of 'town clerk' after the 1974 local government reorganisation. This was intended to be more than a semantic change.

The old town clerks, however grand, had been 'first among equals' among senior officers, but reorganisation brought the concept of one officer in overall charge.

Whatever their job descriptions might say, no chief executive is asked to "use hymselfe decentlie and orderlie therein towards Mr Maior", the instruction given to Thomas Sambrooke of Northampton in 1590.

Nor would many have "malignantly and scandalously and opprobriously insulted the bailiffs and burgesses", the offence of Liverpool's clerk Robert Dobson in 1580.

According to Alan Norton's history, The Town Clerk, the earliest mentions of the post date from the 13th century, when clerks held office for life and passed their job on to their son or business associates.

They were lawyers because borough's rights were derived from individual royal charters and letters patent, which needed legal skills to negotiate their content.

Things only began to change when the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act created incorporated boroughs based on statute rather than charters. Boroughs lost their judicial role, and began to endure some central government control in finance.

By 1929, the Onslow Commission's inquiry found it "necessary for one officer to survey the whole field of an authority's activities and secure coordination".

The inquiry said that town clerks need not be lawyers, a suggestion that moved the Society of Town Clerks to outrage.

The increased role of central government became plain during post-war reconstruction, and the society complained in 1947 that its members received at least two circulars a day from Whitehall.

While salaries today attract controversy for nudging 200,000, the post-war decades saw town clerks feeling inadequately rewarded.

Manchester's Sir Philip Dilke urged his fellow clerks in 1962 to "strive by every means in our power to obtain a less niggardly code of compensation"; and on the eve of reorganisation the highest salary was 8,142.

David Clark, director general of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, says the most noticeable change from the last days of town clerks is "the way the job has become one of working for the government rather than for councils".

He says: "A lot of it is statute-driven and involves doing what the statute says, whereas the town clerks could exploit councils' freedom to be autonomous.

"The statutes have quite an emphasis on 'the chief executive will', that is quite a shift and councillors tend to resent it."

Mr Clark, a former chief executive of City of York Council, worries about where tomorrow's chief executives will be found.

"Appointments are very risk averse and many of those appointed have [achieved] 'excellent' comprehensive performance assessments," he says.

"It is getting like the football Premiership where you can only join a team if you are with another Premiership side, which is fine until those involved retire or die. Where then does the next generation come from?"

Mr Robertson, chief executive at Watford BC, thinks the job has become more political and this trend could intensify.

"We have tried to keep up the idea of serving the whole council but there could in future be fewer councils and there might be more elected mayors," he says.

Chief executives gained special employment protection in 1989, when the government wanted to prevent councils from sacking chiefs who gave advice that went against councillors' political objectives. Getting rid of a chief executive requires adjudication by an 'independent person', who reports on whether the complaint warrants disciplinary action. This process has been used only six times, Mr Robertson says.

He recalls: "It was introduced during the Thatcher era around the time of people refusing to set rates. It was difficult for even the most senior staff to stand up to councillors and give advice they would listen to."

The modern chief executive is a senior manager, a co-ordinator of external partners, loyal servant of their council leader, public figure and business planner.

They may be well rewarded, but they cannot claim, as Mr Dobson did in 1580, that "whosoever the devil was mayor he would be town clerk".

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