BY CLLR TOM DRUITT
In my relatively short time as Councillor, I have seen first-hand how tremendously hard Council officers and staff work to provide high-quality services to our residents. It is often a thankless task, which might explain why according to a recent staff survey, only 29% of council staff felt valued.
Another reason for this might be the constant uncertainty faced by Council staff due to local government cuts. We recently uncovered that a total of 360 council staff are currently undergoing a redundancy consultation process, with an estimated 100 staff set to lose their jobs in April. For many, the threat of potential job losses has been hanging over them since the latter half of 2015.
Not only was this redundancy consultation process started without any agreement from Policy & Resources Committee, there has also been no meaningful public consultation on the budget proposals as there was under the last Green administration and as we called for this time too.
According to recent research by the University of East Anglia, regardless of whether jobs are lost, restructuring damages staff well-being, psychological and physical health and job satisfaction. Hardly a surprise then that staff morale in the council is so low.
The current redundancy consultations are a result of the Labour council’s budget proposals to cut £68m from the budget over the next four years, in order to respond to the looming budget gap created by Conservative government cuts to local authority grants.
For some teams, such as park rangers, staff have not known from one day to the next how many of the team will be lost. As it currently stands, it now looks like Labour have found a way to fund most (though not all) of the team. It makes you ask: if the money was available, why were such drastic proposals put forward in the first place?
The Council budget has been shrinking since 2012, but this year is different. The Green administration was able to protect the city from the majority of the budget cuts through efficiency savings, reducing the number of buildings, the modernisation programme and by attracting £100m of inward investment in transport and infrastructure regeneration. We have not seen anything like this in the last nine months, and this year the cuts to the council’s budget are worse than ever.
This requires a whole new approach. We cannot continue to make efficiencies because where efficiencies were available they have already been made. Every saving the council makes now will have a direct, negative impact on frontline services, and to deal with this we need entirely new thinking.
This new approach would involve re-assessing the whole organisation in terms of the level of need in the community, both to build up a picture of what we have to deliver and to provide evidence for a strong case to be put to the Government for a better deal. We saw last year the farcical situation where David Cameron chastised his local council in Oxfordshire for cutting frontline services. Mr Cameron actually thought the savings required of Oxfordshire County Council could be made with ‘back-office’ efficiencies.
This shows a total lack of understanding for the impact of austerity amongst senior Government officials from the Prime Minister down, and the Government’s surprise announcement late last year that councils would be able to raise a further 2% council tax for social care services demonstrates that as the penny drops the Government can be made to listen. With a national leader rightfully against austerity policies and dozens of Labour councils up and down the country to join forces with, Labour have an opportunity to stand up and say “enough’s enough”. But they don’t.
With a new assessment of service requirement and a strong campaign for a better deal from Government, the council would be better placed to look at the staffing required across the council to deliver the services that residents so desperately need. The council would then be able to start a meaningful conversation with staff around the staffing needs in each department, working with staff to identify the needs and how that needs is made up.
Council staff know these are difficult times. Unions know these are difficult times. But staff feel understandably disempowered and demotivated when these decisions are made above their heads, or when they are invited to a consultation where the result is a foregone conclusion. Let’s stop playing God with people’s lives and start talking, and more importantly listening, to our staff and work together to shape the council of the future. Sadly it’s too late for this budget, and that is why Greens are rejecting it. But if we start now it won’t be too late for the next budget.