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South Cambridgeshire District Council to continue with four-day week trial despite government threat to ‘cease immediately’

Councils pursuing a four-day working week are “on notice” and should “cease immediately”, the government has said.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) is exploring measures to “ensure that the sector is clear” the practice should not be adopted, according to newly-published guidance.

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

Ministers say the working arrangement does not deliver value for money for local taxpayers.

The guidance, which is non-statutory, was released on Thursday (October 26) following a row earlier this year over South Cambridgeshire District Council’s trial of offering employees a three-day weekend in exchange for longer shifts.

In September, the Liberal Democrat-run 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.

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.”

He added: “Those councils who continue to disregard this guidance are now on notice that the government will take necessary steps in the coming months ahead to ensure that this practice is ended within local government.”

If councils defy the guidance and there is evidence of service decline, the government says “departments may raise concerns directly with the authority, monitor performance more closely and consider options to correct declining performance”.

The district 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.

Council leader Bridget Smith said: “Every decision we make centres on what is best for the communities who elect us. Our offices are open five days a week, and we can be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week in an emergency like during last week’s flooding.

“Local councils should always be free to decide the best way to deliver services for the residents they represent. On one hand government tells us to innovate to cut costs and provide higher quality services; on the other they tell us not to innovate to deliver services.

“We are best placed to make these decisions in our area, which has high private sector wages and housing costs, making it very difficult to attract and retain talented staff we need to deliver for residents and businesses.”

South Cambridgeshire district and Cambridge city councils share some services, including planning and waste.

Cambridge leader Cllr Mike Davey added: “We have been supportive of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s four-day week trial to see how it can work for local government – to benefit work-life balance, improve productivity, and vitally address recruitment and retention challenges compounded by thirteen years of budget reductions from the government.

“We will continue to support the SCDC trial to its conclusion and look forward to learning from the outcomes. The recent introduction of a four day waste collection in South Cambs and city has gone extremely well so far. Data from the first five weeks shows we have exceeded our 99.7 per cent collection target. We will of course continue to monitor the data to ensure that service levels remain high for our residents.”

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