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News release from: 13/09/2023

Four-day week trial at Council continuing and residents reminded of bin collection changes

Four-day week trial at Council continuing and residents reminded of bin collection changes

Leading councillors have confirmed that a 12-month four-day week trial at South Cambridgeshire District Council is continuing. 

The trial will expand to waste collections next week, with more bins being collected on Tuesday to Friday, and no collections from homes on Mondays. This will also reduce the confusion of changes to collection days when there is a bank holiday Monday. 

The Council began a three-month trial in January this year after only being able to fill around eight out of every ten of its vacancies. In some months only around half of jobs advertised were successfully recruited to. 

Not being able to fill vacant posts – or using agency staff to cover them – is expensive and disruptive. For example, when case officers change during the process of a planning application, it can cause delays and frustration because a lot of context and institutional memory is lost.

Before the trial started, the Council was spending about £2million a year on agency staff, often in specialist roles where the private sector pays more. This bill could be halved if all the agency posts were filled permanently.

The initial trial for desk-based staff took place between January and March this year, then councillors reviewed an independent assessment of performance data and agreed to extend the trial until the end of March 2024. 

Although the three-month trial wasn’t expected to see improvement in recruitment, because there was no certainty about whether it would continue, a saving of around £300,000 annually would be achieved after the Council recruited to four of 23 posts identified as ‘hard to fill’ which could not previously be filled. 

The initial trial was extended until the end of March 2024 to test whether a four-day week could positively impact on the Council’s recruitment and retention issues over a longer period. 

A report to be discussed at Friday’s Employment and Staffing Committee shows the Council has now filled nine of the 23 posts that could not permanently be recruited to before the trial began. Filling these posts means the Council expects to spend around £550,000 less on agency cover this year, because that is the saving from permanently recruiting to nine of the 23 ‘hard to fill’ posts so far. 

The Council’s agency spend still fluctuates – and has increased recently due to the need to bring in agency staff to carry out short term programmes where permanent staff are not required. For example, this includes employing temporary staff to support the Council’s commitments under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. 

Bin collection days will change for approximately 80% of local households next week (Monday 18 September) as waste crews begin their trial.

All residents who are affected by next week’s changes have been sent a letter and can also check their bin collection arrangements online. These changes also follow a review of bin rounds which are typically completed by all councils every few years. This considers new homes that have been built across the area and ensures bin collection rounds continue to be carried out as efficiently as possible. 

For the past two years the waste service, which South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridge City Councils share, has not been able to recruit to all driver and loader posts and recently there has been an average of eight agency staff covering these positions – at an additional cost to the taxpayer. 

South Cambridgeshire District Council continues to open Monday – Friday, and because of new working patterns has been able to trial extending its opening hours to provide an early evening service for residents one day a week. 

Last week, Council Leader Cllr Bridget Smith received a letter from Minister Lee Rowley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government and Building Safety, regarding the four-day week. The Minister reiterated his request for the Council to cease its four-day week trial. 

Minister Rowley raised concerns about seven specific areas of performance by the Council during the trial. However, councillors have said that some of the criticisms of the Council’s performance were very inaccurate as a result of data being taken out of context. The queries and the Council’s responses have therefore been published to ensure South Cambridgeshire residents and businesses have the full picture. 

The Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, said: “We have consistently said that this is an evidence-based trial to see whether a four-day week can improve our critical recruitment issues. Not being able to fill vacant posts – especially in our planning team - is disruptive to services for our residents. We need the trial to run for its full planned length, until the end of March, to gather data and assess whether a difference has been made. However, we can already see that our recruitment is being positively affected, both in terms of the quality and number of applicants, and the consequent success in filling posts we simply could not recruit to previously, which then leads to reducing the reliance on expensive agency staff as cover. The annual saving of more than £550,000 that we have already seen has been made possible by the fact that we have been able to recruit to nine posts that beforehand we simply could not fill. 

“When it comes to how our services are performing, we continue to monitor our full range of key performance indicators closely. Any statistic taken in isolation and without at least some explanation simply does not give the full picture. I am confident that we have answered each of the points raised by Minister Rowley in his letter last week. We remain keen to meet in-person with Minister Rowley to put forwards our rationale and evidence so far.” 

Plans to pilot a four-day week in the Scottish Public Sector by the end of this year were announced by the Scottish Government earlier this month and the results of the world’s largest four-day working week trial to date evidence its success in the private sector.

Queries raised by the Minister:

Missed target to re-let housing stock on every month of the trial.

Although the Council missed its own internal target of 17 days during the initial three-month trial, this is very much a stretch target. Statistics from Housemark, the social housing benchmarking group, show that within our peer group of similar providers, the upper quartile for re-let times is 32.6 days. To be clear, we are performing way above the average for how councils perform in this area.

Reduction in the number of calls answered by the Contact Centre, and the number, when answered, that were resolved first time.

January, February and March are generally our busiest months. In January and February we continued to exceed our target of 90% of calls answered by the Contact Centre, before a slight reduction in March, when an additional 3,000 more calls were received compared with February (due to Council Tax bills landing on doormats and the introduction of a Mayoral precept, resulting in calls about a relatively complex and novel matter linked to funding buses). Our Q1 (April, May and June) results are better than our target for all three months and better than the average for all monthly results since 2016.

Regarding calls answered first time, our 80% target was exceeded in January, before a reduction to just below 78% in February and just below 79% in March. Across the quarter, these results are marginally better than the average of all monthly results since 2016, showing that this is not performance of concern.

Had to wait longer for those calls to be answered by your call centre during the trial.

Call waits always have peaks and troughs, depending on the time of year and issues that arise. This is a matter that we do keep under close and regular review. Our target of answering calls within 100 seconds is another stretch target. However, call answer times in the quarter being referred to were generally within levels we would expect for the time of year, and improved slightly in Q1 2023/24. This data was published for last Thursday’s Scrutiny and Overview Committee.

Missed rent collection target on one month of the trial – something which would have been 2 months if the Council hadn’t amended its own target downwards.

Our housing rent collection targets have not been amended. We exceeded the target in January but were 0.12% and 0.04% below target in February and March respectively. This was due to the timing of payments hitting rent accounts. The actual collection rate for 22/23 (including payments made on the last day of March but received after year end) met the target, and targets have been exceeded throughout quarter 1 of 2023/24.

Council Tax collection targets missed.

Our end of year collection rate for the 2022-23 financial year placed us as the joint top performing District Council for Council Tax Collection in the country. While the target was missed in January and February, this was due to our flexibility in allowing people to spread payments across 12 rather than 10 months of the year, due to the cost-of-living crisis.

Increase in the time taken to process Housing Benefit Claims and Changes.

The average number of days to process new Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support claims remained within our 15-day target timescale. The average number of days to process changes also remained comfortably within timescale. The slight increase in processing times during these months is a regular trend that is seen as we approach each year end. Benchmarking data places us 23rd out of 178 District Councils in the Country for processing of new Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support claims Q4 of 2022/23 – comfortably within top quartile. For Benefits changes, we also performed better than our target.

Housing Repair Target Missed.

Although our own internal target of 97% was missed, benchmarking data from 171 social housing providers shows that satisfaction rates of 93% and above equate to top quartile performance for the sector. Although our performance during the three-month trial was at 92% satisfaction, the latest data published for last week’s Scrutiny and Overview Committee puts the figure at 96%. It is also worth noting that this target relates to the performance by an external contractor.