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Leaders pledge support for under-fire South Cambridgeshire District Council as it reports improvements amid government pressure

Leaders have pledged their support for a council under fire from the government for piloting a four-day working week.

The leaders - of borough and district councils in Suffolk - said government intervention in a council decision was setting a “dangerous precedent”.

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

They wrote in an open letter: “The government wants us to become more efficient and save money and therefore must accept all ideas for doing this. If the trial is successful, then it could be something for others to consider. If it isn’t successful, the data will show that and we will still all have learned something. That is the purpose of a trial.

“But, for us, the main issue is local autonomy. What you are doing is a matter for a local authority alone and the government shouldn’t intervene: it sets a dangerous precedent. Councils must be allowed to make their own informed decisions.

“We are all answerable to our residents who can decide if they like what we do when the time comes for them to vote.”

Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council, which plans to continue with the pilot until March despite government officials ordering it to end, has found rates of staff turnover and vacancies have dropped.

A report on progress since the start of the trial in January presented to the council’s employment and staffing committee on Thursday (November 9) showed the number of agency staff covering vacancies had reduced from 23 to nine, providing a projected saving of £776,000.

Staff turnover reduced by 36 per cent and sickness rates fell by 33 per cent, while significant improvements were reported in the mental and physical health of employees.

Complaints to the council reduced by 2.5 per cent and there was no worsening in the performance of any council service, the report said.

After the trial was extended to waste services in September, bin collection rates have hit or exceeded a target of 99.70 per cent across nearly 130,000 in South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge.

Last month the government said councils pursuing a four-day working week are “on notice” and should “cease immediately”.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it is exploring measures to “ensure that the sector is clear” that the practice should not be adopted, according to new non-statutory guidance.

The department recently issued a best value notice to South Cambridgeshire in an escalation of its demand that the council cease the trial.

The formal warning, which is normally issued when a serious financial or governance issue comes to light, said the council would be monitored on a weekly basis if it continued the pilot.

The leaders, who represent councils in Ipswich, Mid Suffolk, East Suffolk, West Suffolk and Babergh, added: “The decision to serve a best value notice is heavy-handed and tantamount to bullying. It is designed to close down your trial before it has had time to complete and provide the complete data. This is a misuse of the best value notice process.”

Introducing the guidance, local government minister Lee Rowley said: “In normal circumstances, the Government of course respects the right of councils to make their own decisions on key issues.

“There are also times, however, when Government deems it proportionate to step in to ensure that residents’ value for money is protected.

“The issue of the four-day working week is one of those times.”

Addressing the council committee on Thursday, Jeff Membery, head of transformation, human resources and corporate services at council, said: “Overall the data shows that job retention has improved, recruitment has improved, health and wellbeing has improved, whilst performance has been at least maintained.”

Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, said: “Critics of the four-day week said it could never apply to blue collar workers but these very positive results prove it definitely can.

“The nine to five, five-day working week is outdated and no longer fit for purpose.

“We encourage more councils to ignore the Government’s latest guidance and follow South Cambridgeshire’s example.”

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