The Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has issued a formal warning to South Cambridgeshire District Council over its refusal to stop its four-day working week trial.
DLUHC wrote to the council’s chief executive last week issuing a Best Value Notice, which formally signals the department’s concern over the reduced-hours trial and requires the council to provide assurance of improvement.
SDCD began its four-day working week trial in January, to help attract and retain staff and cut costs by reducing its spending on agency staff.
But last month, DLUHC said it was “calling time” on the scheme, issuing guidance instructing any local authorities that had begun trialling a four-day working week to stop immediately.
At the time, local government minister Lee Rowley said councils that disregarded the guidance were “on notice that the government will take necessary steps in the coming months to ensure that this practice is ended within local government”.
In a letter to South Cambridgeshire chief exec Liz Watts, DLUHC’s deputy director for local government stewardship Max Soule said ministers were concerned with SDCD’s compliance with its Best Value Duty under the Local Government Act 1999 – which requires councils to consider overall value – including social value – when considering service provision.
Among their concerns was that the council could not deliver its Best Value Duty with those working arrangements, and that it was “not fully analysing the impacts of the trial on services or the productivity of its workforce”, he said.
Meanwhile, “the removal of up to a fifth of the capacity of the council means that it is unlikely, in aggregate, for it to be able to support continuous improvement”, he added.
“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,” the letter said.
SCDC must provide ministers with “robust evidence of the impacts of the trial” on the council and its services, and show that it is working with an independent expert in considering data and making assessments, it said.
The council must also set out how it is evaluating Best Value in relation to the trial – in particular, how it is seeking to “secure continuous improvement”; that it is using “an effective internal control environment to safeguard the use of resources, and clear and effective processes to secure value for money”; and that it is managing its HR and fixed assets efficiently and effectively.
Soule said DLUHC would be sending through a form on which the authority must share data on staffing, costs, service delivery, performance against “a range of relevant KPIs”, and resident feedback.
“It also allows for qualitative information, including around how decisions about the trial have been reached and any other policies the council has introduced or is exploring to address recruitment, retention and wellbeing challenges with an appraisal of their impact,” he added.
The notice will stay in place for six months, covering the remainder of SCDC’s four-day working week trial.
“After this time, should the department deem it necessary to continue to seek assurance through such a notice, the notice will be reissued. The notice may be withdrawn or escalated at any point based on the available evidence,” the letter said.
Responding to the letter, Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire Council, hit out at what she called a “huge overreach by government ministers in London telling us how we should be running the council our residents have elected us to”.
“The government has slashed council budgets for over a decade and told us to innovate to deliver the best quality services,” she said.
“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," she added.
SCDC has said it was spending around £2m a year on 23 agency staff who were covering vacancies, many in specialist roles, and estimated it could cut this in half by filling the posts permanently. It has so far filled 14 of these jobs, mostly in planning.
“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," Smith said.
She said it was "ironic" that Rowley had chosen to "attack" the council the same day it had requested a corporate peer review from the Local Government Association.
A South Cambridgeshire District Council spokesperson said: “We have received the notice from government, and it will be considered."