Britain's biggest companies are to withhold pay rises en masse from top executives for the first time in decades in a bid to combat mounting investor fury over bumper pay packets.
The pay-freeze is being planned as part of a response to warnings from shareholders that boardroom pay, which has increased by as much as 10pc a year for over a decade, must be curtailed in the wake of the financial crisis.
Carol Arrowsmith, of Deloitte, who advises FTSE 100 companies on remuneration, said: "Boards of the biggest companies are looking at pay at the moment and concluding that it is not appropriate to award pay rises to executives this year. This is a significant shift in policy."
Other consultants said that the "vast majority" of their FTSE100 clients are planning to freeze pay levels for directors or only raise them in line with inflation.
Rob Burdett, at Hewitt New Bridge Street, the pay consultant which advises over 40pc of FTSE250 companies, said: "Executive remuneration is one of the key boardroom issues facing FTSE250 companies in 2009 – and will impact the ability of companies to weather the economic downturn."
He added: "We are now in uncharted territory. As the economy enters recession, remuneration packages are in the spotlight – directors need to be set achievable targets, while investors must be assured that reward levels are not excessive."
The consultations are being held amid increasing criticism from shareholders that current pay agreements are excessive in the light of the economic downturn.
This week, Bellway, one of Britain's biggest house builders, faces an embarrassing showdown with its shareholders, who plan to vote down the remuneration report at the company's annual meeting on Friday.
The row, which was revealed by the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, is over a decision to award Bellway's chief executive, John Watson, and two other executives, Peter Stoker and Alistair Leitch, bonuses of a total of £600,000 – an equivalent of 55pc of their base salaries for the year – and a boost to the level of their basic salaries.
Anthony Nutt, of Jupiter, one of the biggest institutional investors, said: "Company executives have shared in the upside of the boom time now they must share in the pain alongside investors and employees." The ABI has issued a rare "red-top'' alert, indicating its highest level of concern ahead of the annual meeting.
Last week Sir Stuart Rose pledged not to take a pay rise this year as Marks & Spencer announced that £200m would have to be cut from costs after its worst sales figures in a decade.
Concerns are mounting that the current pay structures, which are the results of year of consultations and reports, have failed in their aim to promote sustainable growth.
Mr Burdett said: "Companies must review their reward structures to ensure the package is both appropriate and effective.
"However, a knee-jerk reaction is not the solution. For some, amending packages within the current framework rather than implementing wholesale structural changes may be the best approach."