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Government issues best value notice to South Cambridgeshire District Council as four-day week row escalates

A formal notice has been issued to South Cambridgeshire District Council by the government amid concerns over its four-day week trial.

The best value notice was issued today (Friday, November 3) to ensure the authority provides assurances over improvements.

Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of the Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council, at the council's headquarters in Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of the Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council, at the council's headquarters in Cambourne. Picture: Keith Heppell

However, the authority’s ruling Lib Dem group says the Conservative government's move puts “politics before progress”.

Leader Cllr Bridget Smith stormed: “The government has slashed council budgets for over a decade and told us to innovate to deliver the best quality services.

“This four-day week trial is centred around evidence and data. Local government leaders of all political persuasions have told me that they are outraged at this huge overreach by government ministers in London telling us how we should be running the council our residents have elected us to.”

Under the trial, council workers are paid for five days but work for four in a move designed to aid recruitment and retention and save money on paying agency workers in hard-to-fill posts.

In a letter sent today to the council’s chief executive Liz Watts, deputy director of local government stewardship Max Soule said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) was concerned that the council was not “fully analysing the impacts of the trial on services or the productivity of its workforce”.

He said the council would be sent a data form to complete and return to the government each week for an initial six months, but “the notice may be withdrawn or escalated at any point based on the available evidence”.

Mr Soule said the concerns were highlighted in local government minister Lee Rowley’s letters to the council in June and September, which requested an end to the trial.

He wrote: “If South Cambridgeshire chooses to continue with this trial following receipt of this letter, the department is now formally requesting additional detail on its impact, both on individual employee productivity, the council and the provision of services as a whole.”

In September, the council announced it was continuing with a planned extension of the pilot until next March, despite ministers previously ordering officials to end it. It was the first local authority in the UK to undertake such a trial.

Last week, DLUHC announced it was exploring measures to “ensure that the sector is clear” the practice should not be adopted.

The council is continuing with its trial despite the guidance, saying there is strong evidence it is helping with recruitment and retention.

Since January, sickness rates have fallen by a third and complaints about services involved in the pilot have reduced, the authority said.

Cllr Smith continued: “If Mr Rowley had just taken the trouble to look at our website he would have seen that we have recruited into a large number of notoriously hard to fill roles - especially in planning where we simply can’t compete with the private sector on wages alone.

“As a result the council expects to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds less this year on more expensive agency staff to cover jobs that, before we announced the trial, we were finding it almost impossible to fill. On top of this we have seen performance not only maintained but in many cases improved.

“We are trying to recruit the best possible staff to run excellent services in a high wage area, with incredibly high housing costs. We can’t offer the same pay as in the private sector so we have innovated to find a solution.”

Cllr Smith said it was ironic that Mr Rowley had chosen to “attack” the authority on the day the council requested the Local Government Association complete a Corporate Peer Review of it.

She continued: “We are expecting that this will clearly state that we are in a strong financial position and are a well managed organisation with an enviable record of delivery - such as being the district with the highest number of visas issued under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

“It is also ironic that the four-day week is helping us to retain and recruit planners who we need to respond to the government’s own vision for this area in terms of growth. This is a classic case of the left and right hand not knowing what the other one is doing. Do government minister’s not communicate?

“This failing government should be focused on the challenges facing the whole country; whether it be getting a proper grip on the cost of living crisis, high inflation, energy bills, food costs, dealing with the climate emergency and apologising for the appalling behaviour from ministers during the pandemic when South Cambridgeshire residents were following the rules to protect each other.”

A South Cambridgeshire District Council spokesperson said: “We have received the notice from government, and it will be considered."

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