UNITARY CAMPAIGN: ‘Party politics hampers policies for public good’

Chris Williams
Chris Williams
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Bucks County Council’s outgoing chief executive says party politics prevents the authority from making key decisions in the public good.

Speaking ahead of his retirement this week, Mr Williams pulled no punches when speaking about his 20 years at the council.

He said: “My biggest regret is my failure to persuade the council to vote for a Bucks-wide unitary authority.

“I know that had it gone to an open vote there was a mitigation within the council to back it.

“But Conservative agents all turned up at the Tory group meeting and threatened the councillors with deselection, in particular [then-leader]David Shakespeare was told that he would never be able to stand as a Conservative again if he voted for the proposal.

“This made me feel sick, and I think that a lot of decisions are made like this at the council. The technical arguments just went out of the window.”

He added: “As a consolation I was made the lead officer for something called Pathfinder [set up to examine ways to work with neighbouring authorities and save money], I led this for three years spending £2.5 million in public money, but we got diddly squat out of it in the end.”

Mr Williams started working for Bucks County Council on his birthday, November 26, in 1996.

The son of a postman and a school dinner lady from Radnorshire in Wales says he never imagined that he would end up as chief executive of the authority.

He said: “The pinnacle of my ambition was to be a director. My first day was a meeting at the old court buildings, at that time I was director of environmental services which was a new department.

“Before that I had worked on the regional strategy and designated Aylesbury and Milton Keynes as regional growth areas. So all the houses you see now were started by me, although we wanted lower numbers.

“But at the moment Aylesbury does not have a local plan, and this makes it much easier for developers.”

As well as paving the way for development, Mr Williams has done his bit for Buckinghamshire’s environmental cause.

He is chairman of the Chilterns Conservation Board, which was set up to protect and enhance the area of outstanding natural beauty.

Mr Williams is only the eighth chief executive or clerk to the council since 1898, and says that it is a ‘huge honour to be in such an elite grouping’.

And when responding to criticisms about the six-figure salaries that chief executives are paid nowadays, Mr Williams, who is paid £207,000, defended the public spend.

He said: “I’m responsible for a £1 billion a year budget and that is more than many FTSE 100 companies.

“The council is a cradle to grave service, and I think the chief executive’s is a salary that is appropriate.

“But I also pay a lot of tax, I probably pay more tax than most people earn, and because it is public money I don’t get any of the perks that a private company chief executive would.

“I do find it a little annoying when the media quotes my salary, but I know that it’s fair enough really.

“Everything I do has to be done in public, it has to be recorded and it has to be open to scrutiny, so actually my salary and personal life are fair game.”

Mr Williams, who lives in the heart of Aylesbury’s Old Town, says that he will spend his retirement travelling the world.

He plans to go on European trips in a motorhome with his wife Clare, who runs the Red Kite dancing school at Queens Park Arts Centre.

He said: “I will be very sad to leave because I love my job here so much.”

He added: “In short I am proud of what I achieved as chief executive at the county council, but not proud of the fact that – despite all the efforts – I am leaving with the prehistoric multi-tiered, local government system still intact, when the savings that could be made would go to protecting services to the most vulnerable and to fixing the roads.

“Savings that are so easy to release, at a time when we need them most.

“My final message is that it simply has to change, and it has to change quickly. I love Buckinghamshire County Council, but long for the day when I hear it is being scrapped.”