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Fenland Council reveals the £550,000 extra cost of not being able to recruit permanent staff

Planning is not the only department facing a staff shortage at Fenland Council

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Fenland District Council says it has paid out more than £550,000 this year to agency staff to cover vacancies – the bulk of that sum in planning. Planning has swallowed an additional £410,000 in staffing costs since April to hire agency staff.

The council – which announced in October it had spent an extra £358,680 at a time when it had 11 unfilled roles – revealed the latest dismal scenario to Cabinet members ahead of Christmas.

Fenland Council is currently advertising 9 vacancies in its planning department – including that of a replacement for planning chief Nick Harding who leaves on New Year’s Eve.

In addition to a replacement for Mr Harding as head of planning the council is advertising for

 

In a joint report, Peter Catchpole, Corporate Director and Chief Finance Officer and Mark Saunders, Chief Accountant, told Cabinet there remained “difficulties in recruiting and retaining employed staff and the necessity to engage contract/agency staff.

“An enhanced recruitment and retention package has recently been agreed by employment committee to attract more employed staff and reduce the reliance on agency staff”.

Planning is not the only department facing a staff shortage.

The officers’ report said that included in £88,000 of increased costs of council transport (refuse, cleansing vehicles etc) was £36,000 of additional staffing costs and £52k of additional running costs (repairs, parts etc”.

Marine services, based at Wisbech, also swallowed £41,000 of additional staffing costs “mainly relating to the pilotage service”.

And, said the officers, there has already been £69,000 of additional staffing costs within the economic estates services, mainly relating to the use of contract/agency staff to fill vacancies.

Their ‘state of the district’ report also noted that the budget set by council in February 2023, showed a balanced budget.

“The latest projected outturn for 2023/24 show the likelihood of a shortfall in the region of £707,000 by the end of this financial year,” says the report.

“There have been numerous significant variations during this year to date which have contributed to the projected shortfall.”

Apart from use of agency staff, the report says the main additional cost variations compared with the February 2023 budget include the following:

  • Increase in net additional cost of the difference between Housing Benefit paid and subsidy reclaimed from DWP of £204,000. Officers are progressing a number of initiatives to increase the amount of subsidy reclaimed.
  • Lower marine services income of £170,000 due to a significant reduction in ship numbers at both Wisbech Port and Port Sutton Bridge.

Net additional cost of £47,000 for providing temporary accommodation for homeless persons.

  • £117,000 of additional cost relating to the household dry recycling service, consisting of £61,000 of additional gate fees (charged on ‘contaminated’ recycled waste) and £56k lower recycling credits. The gate fees are expected to increase significantly in 2024/25 as a result of the new recycling contract.
  • £120,000 of additional ICT hardware maintenance (£11,000), software licences (£93,000) and telephony costs (£16,000).
  • £102,000 of additional external legal fees mainly relating to costs associated with the Wisbech Incinerator planning application (£42,000) and costs associated with the tender for the new dry recycling contract (£40,000k).
  • £179,000 increase for the pay award for 2023/24 (£1,925 flat rate increase for NJC staff and 3.88% for others which equates to a 1.4% additional increase compared to a budgeted 4% increase).

The officers point out that to off-set these additional cost increases, there has been a number of higher income variances including the following:

  • £151k net reduction in IDB (Internal Drainage Board) Levies (additional grant income of £177,000 off-set by £26,000 of additional levies).
  • £191,000 of additional government support for energy costs at the 4 leisure centres.

There has also been additional income from a variety of services – £20,000 from planning fees, arising from the increase in planning fees from 6 December 2023; – £25,000 from garden waste subscriptions; – £26,000 from economic estates; – £16,000 from cemeteries and £445,000 additional investment income arising from higher cash balances, higher investment interest rates and higher interest recharge to Fenland Future Ltd, the council owned development arm.

Cllr Anne Hay quizzed Cllr Laws about the Local Plan consultation and the expectation that it would be brought before full council in 2023/24. She wanted to know from Cllr Laws how Peterborough City Council withdrawing their support for planning would affect the affect the timetable for the completion of the Local Plan.

In a joint report, Peter Catchpole, Corporate Director and Chief Finance Officer and Mark Saunders, Chief Accountant, told Cabinet there remained “difficulties in recruiting and retaining employed staff and the necessity to engage contract/agency staff”.

“There are still many uncertainties around the potential shortfall for 2023/24 and there is no requirement at this time to formally approve an amount to be funded from reserves,” the officers conclude.

They add that “current forecasts for 2024/25 show a shortfall of £539,000 -this shortfall increases to £2.558m in 2028/29.

“At this time, more detailed work is required on a number of issues.

“Although there are currently many uncertainties regarding the budget for 2024/25 and the MTFS, there remains a significant structural deficit which the council will need to address.

“The final deficits for 2023/24 and 2024/25 will have to be funded from council reserves. At this stage, due to the many uncertainties around the potential deficits, there is no requirement to formally approve any amounts to be funded from reserves”.

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