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News release from: 20/11/2023

Councillors agree to Government data requests

Councillors agree to Government data requests

South Cambridgeshire District Councillors have agreed the Council will answer up to 80 questions totalling 186 individual requests from Government every week, as a four-day week trial continues.

An Extraordinary Council Meeting was held this evening (Monday 20 November), for Councillors to discuss a Best Value Notice issued by the Government.

The Notice was issued to South Cambridgeshire District Council for its four-day week trial. Notices of this type have been issued to three other local government bodies this year - but for concerns such as an unrealistic budget, significant governance weaknesses and major cultural problems.  

A three-month trial of a four-day week for desk-based staff began in January this year as the Council tries to address critical recruitment and retention issues facing local government. These issues are particularly acute in South Cambridgeshire due to the strength of the local economy and high cost of living.

Following independent analysis which showed performance was generally maintained, with nine areas showing substantial improvement on the previous year, that trial was extended until the end of March 2024 to assess recruitment and retention benefits over a longer term.

The Council has maintained its full opening hours, so they are at least the same as before the trial, and now stays open to the public later on Wednesdays.

The Best Value Notice requests the Council provides the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) with extensive data on a weekly basis for the next six months. This covers staffing, costs, service delivery, performance, and resident feedback.

Council officers are now gathering the data requested – some of which is already routinely collected and reported on. The first weekly report to DLUCH has been sent. However, work is continuing to assess the impact of reporting some information on a weekly basis.

The Notice also asks for historical data on staff, costs, services, and performance dating back to 2018. Further details about the cost of the trial, improvements outside of the trial, Annual Governance Statements and other policies have also been requested. The Council has until 8 December to provide this retrospective data.

During the Extraordinary Council meeting, councillors voted “…to agree that the Council engage with DLUHC to provide the data requested.”

South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Lead Cabinet Member for Resources, Cllr John Williams, said: “Our staff turnover is down, our sickness is down, and our recruitment has seen clear benefits with almost 100 new staff joining the Council this year. The performance of our services across the board during the trial is encouraging – and we’re collecting more than 99% of bins on-time every week. Thanks to an improvement in recruitment, the amount we expect to spend on agency staff cover this year is also hundreds of thousands of pounds lower than it would otherwise have been. These findings are exactly why we wanted to test a four-day week over a longer period.

“We are now working to fulfil the Government’s requests to answer up to 101 questions every week. Some of the data we already collect – whereas some is likely to be incredibly time-consuming to piece together, will cost money and could reduce our productivity. Because of this we continue to have queries about some of the information being asked for and have suggested some areas where the data request could be altered to make it more meaningful.”

Before announcing the four-day week trial, the Council was spending about £2 million a year on 23 agency staff who were covering vacancies - often in specialist roles where the private sector pays more. This bill could be halved if all the agency posts were filled permanently.

A report discussed at this month’s Employment and Staffing Committee outlines how the Council has now filled 14 of these posts - mainly in the planning service - that are notoriously ‘hard to fill’ due to the national shortage of planners. Filling these posts means the Council expects to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds less than it otherwise would do on agency cover this year.

Analysis of the Council’s performance across key areas continues to paint a promising picture overall, with most services continuing to meet targets, as shown in a report to last week’s Scrutiny and Overview Committee.

A three-month trial of a four-day week at Greater Cambridge Shared Waste, which South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridge City Councils share, got underway in September. Since bins started being collected from Tuesday to Friday, more than 99% have been emptied on time.