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South Cambridgeshire’s defiant ‘oh no, minister’ call to end 4-day week trial

The 4-day week trial will expand to waste collections next week, with more bins being collected on Tuesday to Friday, and no collections from homes on Mondays.

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Council leader Bridget Smith issued a defiant slap in the face ‘memo’ to a Government minister trying to bring an end to a 4-day week trial in South Cambridgeshire.

Local government minister Lee Rowley wrote to Cllr Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council to “ask that you end your experiment immediately”.

But in a 1,648-word press release issued ahead of tomorrow’s employment and staffing committee, the council’s tone is boisterous and resolute in refusing his request.

“The council has now filled nine of the 23 posts that could not permanently be recruited to before the trial began,” says the press release.

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£550,00 less on agency cover

“Filling these posts means the council expects to spend around £550,000 less on agency cover this year, because that is the saving from permanently recruiting to nine of the 23 ‘hard to fill’ posts so far.”

Both ‘sides’ are yet to square up to each other, but Cllr Smith said: “We remain keen to meet in-person with Minister Rowley to put forwards our rationale and evidence so far.”

She said: “We have consistently said that this is an evidence-based trial to see whether a four-day week can improve our critical recruitment issues.

Local government minister Lee Rowley (left) wrote to Cllr Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council to “ask that you end your experiment immediately”.

Local government minister Lee Rowley wrote to Cllr Bridget Smith (above), leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council to “ask that you end your experiment immediately”.

“Not being able to fill vacant posts – especially in our planning team – is disruptive to services for our residents.

“We need the trial to run for its full planned length, until the end of March, to gather data and assess whether a difference has been made.”

Cllr Smith added: “We can already see that our recruitment is being positively affected, both in terms of the quality and number of applicants.

“And the consequent success in filling posts we simply could not recruit to previously, which then leads to reducing the reliance on expensive agency staff as cover.

UNISON Eastern head of local government Alex Porter said: “It’s too early to tell for sure how a four-day working week is affecting council services in South Cambridgeshire, but the signs so far are good.

UNISON Eastern head of local government Alex Porter said: “It’s too early to tell for sure how a four-day working week is affecting council services in South Cambridgeshire, but the signs so far are good.

“The annual saving of more than £550,000 that we have already seen has been made possible by the fact that we have been able to recruit to nine posts that beforehand we simply could not fill.”

Cllr Smith said: “Any statistic taken in isolation and without at least some explanation simply does not give the full picture.

“I am confident that we have answered each of the points raised by Minister Rowley in his letter last week.”

Waste collections go to 4 day week

The 4-day week trial will expand to waste collections next week, with more bins being collected on Tuesday to Friday, and no collections from homes on Mondays.

“This will also reduce the confusion of changes to collection days when there is a bank holiday Monday,” said a council spokesperson.

The council began a three-month trial in January this year after only being able to fill around eight out of every ten of its vacancies. In some months only around half of jobs advertised were successfully recruited to.

“Not being able to fill vacant posts – or using agency staff to cover them – is expensive and disruptive,” said the spokesperson.

“For example, when case officers change during the process of a planning application, it can cause delays and frustration because a lot of context and institutional memory is lost.

“Before the trial started, the council was spending about £2million a year on agency staff, often in specialist roles where the private sector pays more. This bill could be halved if all the agency posts were filled permanently.”

The initial trial for desk-based staff took place between January and March this year, then councillors reviewed an independent assessment of performance data and agreed to extend the trial until the end of March 2024.

The council says that although the three-month trial wasn’t expected to see improvement in recruitment, because there was no certainty about whether it would continue, a saving of around £300,000 annually would be achieved after the council recruited to four of 23 posts identified as ‘hard to fill’ which could not previously be filled.

The initial trial was extended until the end of March 2024 to test whether a four-day week could positively impact on the Council’s recruitment and retention issues over a longer period.

The council says its agency spend still fluctuates – and has increased recently due to the need to bring in agency staff to carry out short term programmes where permanent staff are not required.

“For example, this includes employing temporary staff to support the Council’s commitments under the Homes for Ukraine scheme,” said the spokesperson.

Bin collection days will change for approximately 80% of local households next week (Monday 18 September) as waste crews begin their trial.

Cllr Smith received another letter from Mr Rowley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government and Building Safety, regarding the four-day week.

Local government minister Lee Rowley (above) wrote to Cllr Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council to “ask that you end your experiment immediately”.

Local government minister Lee Rowley (above) wrote to Cllr Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council to “ask that you end your experiment immediately”.

“The minister reiterated his request for the council to cease its four-day week trial,” said the spokesperson.

Minister raises 7 concerns 

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“Minister Rowley raised concerns about seven specific areas of performance by the council during the trial.

“However, councillors have said that some of the criticisms of the council’s performance were very inaccurate as a result of data being taken out of context.”

The queries and the council’s responses been published, said the spokesperson. to “ensure South Cambridgeshire residents and business have the full picture”.

Queries raised by the minister and the council’s responses:

QUERY: Missed target to re-let housing stock on every month of the trial.

RESPONSE: Although the council missed its own internal target of 17 days during the initial three-month trial, this is very much a stretch target.

Statistics from Housemark, the social housing benchmarking group, show that within our peer group of similar providers, the upper quartile for re-let times is 32.6 days.

From the week beginning Monday 18 September, household bins will not be collected on a Monday as refuse workers across South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge move to a four-day week.

From the week beginning Monday 18 September, household bins will not be collected on a Monday as refuse workers across South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge move to a four-day week.

To be clear, we are performing way above the average for how councils perform in this area.

QUERY: Reduction in the number of calls answered by the contact centre, and the number, when answered, that were resolved first time.

RESPONSE: January, February, and March are generally our busiest months.

In January and February, we continued to exceed our target of 90% before a slight reduction in March, when an additional 3,000 more calls were received compared with February (due to Council Tax bills landing on doormats and the introduction of a Mayoral precept, resulting in calls about a relatively complex and novel matter linked to funding buses).

Our Q1 (June, July, and August) results are better than our target for all three months and better than the average for all monthly results since 2016.

QUERY: Had to wait longer for those calls to be answered by your call centre during the trial.

RESPONSE: Call waits always have peaks and troughs, depending on the time of year and issues that arise.

This is a matter that we do keep under close and regular review. Our target of answering calls within 100 seconds is another stretch target.

It is likely it will need Michael Gove, the Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, to turn his minister’s request to South Cambs Council to end a 4-day week into an order. Mr Gove (above) on a visit to Peterborough

It is likely it will need Michael Gove, the Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, to turn his minister’s request to South Cambs Council to end a 4-day week into an order. Mr Gove (above) on a visit to Peterborough
Picture by Terry Harris.

However, call answer times in the quarter being referred to were generally within levels we would expect for the time of year and improved slightly in Q1 2023/24.

QUERY: Missed rent collection target on one month of the trial – something which would have been 2 months if the Council hadn’t amended its own target downwards.

RESPONSE: Our housing rent collection targets have not been amended.

We exceeded the target in January but were 0.12% and 0.04% below target in February and March respectively.

This was due to the timing of payments hitting rent accounts. The actual collection rate for 22/23 (including payments made on the last day of March but received after year end) met the target, and targets have been exceeded throughout quarter 1 of 2023/24.

QUERY: Council Tax collection targets missed.

RESPONSE: Our end of year collection rate for the 2022-23 financial year placed us as the joint top performing District Council for Council Tax Collection in the country.

While the target was missed in January and February, this was due to our flexibility in allowing people to spread payments across 12 rather than 10 months of the year, due to the cost-of-living crisis.

QUERY: Increase in the time taken to process Housing Benefit Claims and Changes.

RESPONSE: The average number of days to process new Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support claims remained within our 15-day target timescale.

The average number of days to process changes also remained comfortably within timescale.

The slight increase in processing times during these months is a regular trend that is seen as we approach each year end. Benchmarking data places us 23rd out of 178 district councils in the country for processing of new Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support claims Q4 of 2022/23 – comfortably within top quartile. For Benefits changes, we also performed better than our target.

QUERY: Housing Repair Target Missed.

RESPONSE: Although our own internal target of 97% was missed, benchmarking data from 171 social housing providers shows that satisfaction rates of 93% and above equate to top quartile performance for the sector.

Although our performance during the three-month trial was at 92% satisfaction, the latest data published for this week’s Scrutiny and Overview Committee puts the figure at 96%.

It is also worth noting that this target relates to the performance by an external contractor.

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