Birmingham City Council chief executive Stephen Hughes is emerging as a possible contender for one of the country’s biggest public sector jobs.
Speculation is growing in the local government world that Mr Hughes is ready to put his name forward to become chief executive of the Audit Commission.
The prestige post, at the head of the powerful public services watchdog, will become vacant early next year after current boss Steve Bundred announced that he intends to stand down after seven years in charge.
If Mr Hughes does go his would add to the growing list of top jobs to be filled facing council leader Mike Whitby.
Since September the council has lost respected regeneration director Clive Dutton, who left to take a new job in London and has not been replaced. Assistant regeneration director Philip Singleton leaves in January to join Mr Dutton.
Significantly, Mr Hughes is refusing to rule himself out of the race for the Audit Commission. Asked by the Birmingham Post whether he was interested in the job, he said: “I would never rule out the possibility of anything.”
Mr Hughes said that although he has not been approached by the Audit Commission he would be regarded as a strong contender if he did decide to apply.
He added: “I am not surprised people are speculating that I might get it, because I have a finance background similar to that of Mr Bundred.
“But I think there is a job to be done here in Birmingham and I am keen on getting that done properly.”
Mr Hughes has been chief executive at Birmingham, Britain’s largest local authority, for almost four years.
He was appointed in May 2006, having been interim head of paid service from August 2005.
His period at the helm of Birmingham City Council’s 60,000-strong workforce has had mixed blessings. While the once failing housing department is now one of the country’s best performers, children’s social services continues to labour under an “inadequate” label from Ofsted.
But Mr Hughes’s performance in driving forward Single Status – ending differences between white and blue collar jobs and equalising pay between men and women – has not gone unnoticed at government level.
While other cities were beset by damaging strikes when they attempted to implement Single Status, Birmingham escaped largely unscathed and even managed to force through a pay and grading review which resulted in more than 4,000 employees suffering pay cuts, although many more received a wage rise.
Mr Hughes is an outspoken supporter of the business transformation project, which aims to save the council £900 million over ten years largely through investing in modern IT systems. The scale of the change programme has drawn admiring glances from Whitehall departments and other councils.
The Government recently recognised Mr Hughes’s ability by asking him to help deliver its Total Place scheme, which encourages councils and other public bodies to work together more closely and to share resources.
If he does get the Audit Commission job Mr Hughes can expect a substantial wage rise. Mr Bundred was paid a total of £246,000 last year compared to just over £200,000 for Mr Hughes.
Ironically, Mr Hughes would be heading up an organisation that this week declared Birmingham City Council to be performing adequately but only meeting minimum requirements.
The prospect of a new job for Mr Hughes was likened by council Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore to “someone desperate to jump off a rudderless ship”.
Sir Albert added: “You have to question why so many senior officers are jumping ship.”
Other city council chief executives have gone on to high profile jobs. Lin Homer, who held the job before Mr Hughes, heads the UK Border Agency, while Sir Michael Lyons became chairman of the BBC Trust.