Camden says farewell to chief executive who turned down a fat cat pay rise
Mike Cooke's final week in the job after seven years as Camden Council's most senior officer
28 February, 2019
WHEN talking about council chief executives, the media obsession tends to be more about how much they are paid, rather than what they do.
So when interviewing Mike Cooke, the most senior officer in Camden, in his last week in the job, it’s better to get the question out of the way. Is the Prime Minister’s salary a relevant yardstick for what everybody else in high-pressure jobs should be paid?
“It’s absolutely irrelevant and you can quote me on that,” said Mr Cooke, in an office – he doesn’t have his own one – at the council’s 5PS headquarters in King’s Cross.
“We had old-fashioned language years ago, called ‘whole-time service’. It is whole-time service you sign up to,” he said. “I was at a rugby match on Saturday afternoon and on the way out we got a phone call about a fire in Gray’s Inn Road. I could get a text in the middle of the night about every single knife crime incident, every incident of serious youth violence. I expect to get a text about no matter what at any time of day. I can’t do anything about it, but I need to know and I want to know.”
He is slim for a fat cat, in appearance, but more relevantly so in his pointed approach to the debate. As part of his application for the job, a promotion from within seven years ago, he said that there had been an unreasonable escalation in wages.
His role can command a salary at a whisker under £200,000 a year, but he actively chose to take less than he might have done – £73,000 less, in fact, than his predecessor, Dame Moira Gibb.
Mike Cooke at his leaving do last night (Wednesday), passing the baton to new chief executive Jenny Rowlands
He backed that up by sharing his thoughts with a select committee, calling for salaries to be calmed in the context of the austerity years.
“I wanted to make a statement, not just to Camden, not just to residents in Camden – if you remember austerity was in its early beginnings – but also to London, that chief executive pay had got out of hand,” said Mr Cooke. “I made myself very unpopular with my colleagues, the other chief executives in London.”
Generally, in local government circles, the matter of chief executive pay is looked at through a different lens, however: that people capable of heading £1billion institutions with a series of potential pitfalls – some of which, history has shown, can lead to swift resignations or sackings – are hard to find when the private sector can invariably pay even more.
The packet comes with 24-hour pressure.
After working in housing associations and other councils, Mr Cooke came to Camden via a spell at the former Abbey group bank.
“People look at that and sort of think: ‘Oh, he’s a private sector bod’, but actually if you look at my whole career you’d say that was just some time out from being a public servant,” he said. “I woke up one morning literally in the private sector, thinking I enjoy my organisational development work, I’ve had a buzz out of all of that, but the buzz has gone. What’s missing? It didn’t happen on just one day, but I realised it was the call of public service.”
Mr Cooke announced his plans to retire six months ago, receiving a rare standing ovation from all sides of the chamber. He will be succeeded by Jenny Rowlands, another internal hire.
One of the reasons for the councillor applause was his apparent willingness to keep out of the limelight – to be the quiet man and let the politicians make their choices.
Over the years and decades, this has been an ongoing debate: who is really in control – the officers or the elected councillors.
“There was a narrative that said that Camden was an officer-led council, which I don’t think I agreed with, but it was quite a wide narrative,” he said. “And part of what I’ve tried to do is rebalance that and make sure it is very visibly a member-led council.”
He added: “Councillors will decide what they want. My aim has been for them to decide on the basis of really strong, high-quality evidence and information, using advice based on deep professional experience. Here in Camden we are blessed with members who are open to listening to frank advice. Yes, behind the scenes there is often frank advice about how things will play out in different ways and quite often that advice is listened to deeply. There is deep mutual respect.”
Occasionally, insiders at the council have suggested that his consciously understated approach could allow council leaders – or cabinet members – to behave with too much of a free hand.
But sources have also noticed that Mr Cooke worked particularly well with current political leader Georgia Gould, appointed as Camden’s youngest ever two years ago.
She gave a fond tribute at a farewell party last night (Wednesday), which was reciprocated by Mr Cooke, and she addressed all staff from the 5PS atrium earlier in the day, singing his praises.
Both hot-desk around the open-plan building and can find themselves sitting next to colleagues of different ranks and occupations.
His role ultimately oversees everything from ensuring services for looked-after children to building new waste incinerators; in shorter terms, every aspect of life in Camden.
“There can be funny moments. Occasionally I’ll meet people in the coffee bar and they’ll say things like: ‘I’ve seen you somewhere. I know your face’,” he said. “And I’ll say: ‘Yeah, you might have seen my picture on the intranet or something’ – and still the penny doesn’t drop. And if I get the moment, I’ll tell them I’m the chief executive.”
During his time in the hot-seat, the world of local government has been dominated by debate over slashed budgets.
He insisted he was an optimist but described more hurdles his successors might face.
“I don’t know a public servant in the country who wants to do their job – and reduce their budgets by 50 per cent in the way we have done. That is deeply difficult and personally challenging, and not always easy and not always pleasant. There are definitely some things that we’ve cut that I wish we didn’t have to,” he said.
“At the moment the government is reviewing how the funding for local government is divided up. If it changes in a way that benefits rural areas at the expense of inner London then Camden would have much less money than it is forecasting to have. And if that happens, then Camden would be at a real tipping point and would have to face some horrendously difficult decisions.”
This has brought debates about services such as leisure centres and libraries onto the horizon.
“Where I live in Leighton Buzzard, a population of probably about 100,000, it has one library,” he said. “Camden has double the population and quite a lot more libraries. The tipping point probably means that Camden would have to make decisions about closing things that are very dear to people. I’m hoping – I’m ever the optimist – that government will not bring us to that point.”
Mike Cooke fronting a recruitment film in 2016
Mr Cooke said the leadership had been determined to approach constrained finances with a resolve not to be a council that simply cuts, and that he was proud of the investment in homes and facilities through the Community Investment Programme.
“I know it’s been controversial in some quarters, but our – whatever label you want to put to it – building programme of physical infrastructure is pretty impressive,” he added. “Seven hundred new homes in the borough. Lots of councils are talking about doing it, we’ve done it. It’s not just homes: £100 million invested in schools, new schools, new community facilities, the Greenwood Centre – it makes you proud.”
He said, however, that he wanted to leave “before I got stale”.
At 61, his ‘retirement’ is still likely to include non-executive work for public bodies, although not necessarily in Camden. Ms Rowlands would bring both “continuity and change”, he added. Like Mr Cooke, she arrives for work by train every day, although from a different direction, commuting from Hove.
Mr Cooke said: “I can understand why there’s an affection for the idea of the chief executive living in the borough, but the reality is – and let’s remind ourselves – Camden is right slap bang in the middle of a world city. As such, the affordability of that aspiration is just impossible. Unless that is, people want to go back to raising the chief executive salary and paying a disproportionate amount of salary, which would be frankly obscene and unnecessary.”
Local press vital to democracy
DEPARTING chief executive Mike Cooke said that some of senior members of the Camden workforce felt the Town Hall was hit by hard time from the local press, but he thinks Camden’s media is vital to effective democracy.
Asked how the challenging nature of newspapers like the New Journal was received at 5PS, he said: “It’s true that I know of some colleagues that are still working here, for us, some senior colleagues, who can get a bit down about that. I don’t personally, and I tell you why: Because you have to look at the democratic process overall.”
Mr Cooke added: “In the round, that democratic process. In Camden, we are so lucky to have such civic pride: the civic pride that people feel is such that they feel able to feel angry, and strongly about things and turn up in council chambers demonstrating. That’s great, and the same applies to the local press: we need a very vibrant, local press as part of our democratic process.”
He said: “I absolutely believe that. Do I think sometimes the headlines would be better aligned to the content of the articles, yes I do, but I genuinely believe what I’ve just said.”