A belief that there shouldn’t be profit in public service has led one former council chief executive to pledge a £100,000 redundancy payout back to the public, but it’s also a break with the past, he says.
Jim McKenna is not, he insists, a saint. He is, in his own words, an “ordinary” guy who likes playing cricket, watching Leeds United and having a drink in the pub afterwards. But he is vowing to do something out of the ordinary.
As the former chief executive of Penwith district council, at the far end of Cornwall, McKenna received a £100,000 redundancy payout when the council was abolished last year. He accepted the money – but has now promised to give it back to local town and parish councils, £5,000 a year over the next 20 years, no conditions attached.
His motives are partly philosophical: “We live in a very poor area, we live in difficult times,” he says, “so I’ve thought about it long and hard and it’s what I want to do. I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who live in high levels of public service to profit from that.”
Redundancy also came during a “horrendous” year for McKenna personally, as he struggled with family and financial problems that resulted in the payout itself being swallowed up. His pledge to give back the money afforded him a clean break with the past, but means he now needs to earn enough to honour his promise. He plans a life in which consultancy work several days a week will earn him enough to pay it back and allow him to work one or two days a week for local charities
Though Cornwall may be popularly thought of as a pretty spot for a holiday, a long stretch of sandy beaches and Rick Stein restaurants, it has its share of social problems. Penwith is one of the 40 most deprived areas in the country, according to 2007 figures, while across the county an influx of second-home buyers is pricing many locals out of the housing market.
One of the charities benefitting from McKenna’s help is the Kerrier and the Fal Credit Union, a mutual savings institution that uses local investments to make small loans to the needy. Based in Redruth, it helps keep people out of the hands of the numerous loan sharks that operate in the area.
“There’s a lot of people who can’t get bank accounts,” says Maria Coleman, the credit union’s secretary. “They come to us – and it’s cheaper for them as well. We don’t put on massive charges like the banks do.”
Further down the peninsula, in Penzance, is Penwith Radio, an internet station that started life as a service for lonely elderly people and now broadcasts a wide range of programmes five days a week.
“It’s a great way of tackling loneliness and isolation,” says Chris Goninan, one of the station’s directors. “This will solve a lot of problems – but it doesn’t take massive amounts of money. It needs will and drive to make it happen.”
To add to that will and drive, McKenna brings a contacts book and an intimate knowledge of local public bodies that will be hugely useful as the station aims for an FM broadcasting licence.
All this is part of his plan to give something back to a community he has come to love after arriving here 11 years ago as a born and bred Northerner (hence his regular 1,000 mile roundtrips to watch Leeds play).
No-one has ever minded his background, he says, because he doesn’t put on “airs and graces”.
Everywhere we visit, he is at ease joking around with co-workers and volunteers – who aren’t afraid to return the favour. We stop by a building site near Redruth, where one of McKenna’s ventures is helping develop mid-priced houses – around the £160,000 mark – many of which he hopes will go to local first-time buyers.
As we inspect the almost completed houses, one worker calls out, jokingly, “Can I have my £5,000?”
These quips aside, McKenna admits opinions are divided on his vow to return the redundancy money: “Some people thought it was a fantastic idea. Some people thought I should have my sanity checked.”
He doesn’t believe in “profiting from public service”, even if his former salary – which local newspaper reports put at £95,000 – set him well above the average.
“Everyone in the district has made a contribution to the redundancy [money], so I should give it back [to them],” he says simply. “I don’t need a lot of money to live. As long as I have enough money to look after my family… and I can afford to watch Leeds, I’m happy.”
When it comes to the wider question of public sector pay and conditions, his views are mixed. High salaries are justified “for the right people if they have the ability to transform services.”
But he admits that in an area such as Cornwall, “I fully understand why people would look at someone earning £95,000 and think, how on earth is that justified?”
Council chief executives moving from one job to another, often picking up handsome payments along the way, can be a problem, he admits.
“I can see why people get vexed if someone walks from one job to another within a matter of weeks. I wouldn’t necessarily regard that as the best use of public money. That may be something the government will look at.”
Either way, he doesn’t regret “for a second” promising to give back the money. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done… It was a really difficult year, and [the decision] felt good. I very much want to look forward.”
First published in The Guardian