Council cuts: ‘we’re looking at all options’

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CONSULTANTS will not have the final say over where public spending cuts will be made – that was the clear message from Scarborough’s Town Hall yesterday.

This week the Evening News brought previously classified reports, which detailed proposals to cut £9.5 million annually in public spending from Scarborough Council’s budget, into the public domain for the first time.

The two reports, released after a ruling was made by the Information Commissioner, had been produced by the council’s efficiency partner Northgate Public Services.

They outlined proposals for a radical overhaul of public services in the borough, suggesting that a series of services are outsourced and provided by private companies, that staff numbers be cut and that voluntary organisations could take the place of council staff in some areas.

Hilary Jones, the council’s strategic director, insisted that while all options had to be considered in the council’s drive to fall into line with spending cuts, not all of the suggestions made by Northgate would be adopted and that they formed only part of the local authority’s strategy when deciding where the axe should fall.

She said: “We have embarked on a programme of radical change. The programme will implement new, more efficient ways of working and involve changes to structures, business models service delivery processes and our use of technology.

“We will review everything we do to see if we can change and transform the way we deliver services and exploit the use of new technology so that we can continue to deliver priority services but spend less doing this.”

Compulsory redundancies would only be made at the Town Hall as a last resort, Mrs Jones said.

Northgate reviewed council services with a view to making spending cuts while maintaining or improving service delivery during December 2009 and January 2010.

Following a tendering process, the company was appointed as the council’s efficiency partner on a ‘risk reward’ basis, meaning the council could claw back any fees which Northgate had been paid if it not deliver the financial savings it had promised.

Mrs Jones said: “Major change in a complex organisation like the council is high risk and could not be achieved with in-house resources alone.

“The risk reward model provides a contract where the partner bears the risk by having to deliver up front identified efficiencies or they forfeit payment. Any overachievement or additional savings are maintained by the council.

“Service levels and performance must also remain the same or better.”

Northgate will be paid fees of £800,000 for work in the council’s Customer First and Revenues and Benefits departments, after identifying £1.3 million of savings which it said could be made.

The council refused an Evening News request to see the Northgate reports more than a year ago, however, in future all reviews of council services by the company will be released on the council’s website.

-Below is a summary of what Northgate Public Services found in each of the council departments they looked at over December 2009 and January 2010.

CUSTOMER SERVICES

Northgate Public Services found that while the concept and strategy of the Customer First centre fit well with the Government blueprint, there were a series of issues with performance.

It is stated: “Morale is very low and a strong blame culture has arisen. There has been a failure to correctly implement a good customer service model.

“A constant theme was the breakdown of communication and trust in the relationship between Customer First and other departments.”

The relationship between Customer First and the benefits department was said to have “almost completely broken down.”

REVENUES AND BENEFITS

Northgate stated that the departments were either not achieving performance potential or were “high cost.”

The departments were over resourced, poorly organised and their management adopted an “insular, highly-defensive approach” to the council’s Customer First strategy, Northgate said.

The report adds that there was a perception in the local taxation department that Customer First staff were not capable of dealing with queries from members of the public.

However, evidence suggested that on occasions members of the local taxation team had refused to take calls from members of the public.

TOURISM AND CULTURE

While the parks service was said to offer a good service, generally the departments were described as high cost yet providing a low-quality service to the borough.

It was said that the council should commission more tourism and leisure services rather than provide them directly to the public.

The report stated that there was an over provision of entertainment venues in Scarborough, with The Futurist and The Spa on the same promenade.

Staffing levels and some venues were said to be excessive, although visitor attractions were praised.

ENVIRONMENT AND WASTE MANAGEMENT

Services including dog wardens, recycling and the crematorium were again said to be high cost and Northgate said there was room to drive significant improvements.

They suggested that the workshop and fleet management facility could be outsourced to private company - a move which could see council staff lose their jobs.

The consultants also suggested cutting the amount spent on street cleaning and rubbish collections and reviewing the emissions plan for the crematorium.

The split three environmental services departments should be consolidated into a single department, it was recommended.

ASSET MANAGEMENT

It was stated that there was no clear picture of the volume of space in properties owned or occupied by the council and that other key data was missing.

Rent reviews of council-owned properties should be undertaken, as some rents had not risen for “some considerable time,” Northgate advised.

Northgate said that further consideration should be given to moving the council from the Town Hall, and that a large number of council-owned properties should be sold off.

It was recommended that two members of staff in the department who were due to retire were not replaced and that new workers be employed on a temporary or fixed-term basis so they could be easily disposed of if necessary.

HUMAN RESOURCES

The council’s 15-strong human resources team was found to be larger than necessary.

Northgate said the work of the entire department could be outsourced, saving between £120,000 and £140,000 per year, although the suggestion was later rejected by the council.

The consultants claimed their changes would improve morale and motivation of council staff, while implementing tight sickness monitoring.

It was stated that the capability of line managers in the human resources department was poor.

STRUCTURE

Northgate observed that the council’s senior management structure was top-heavy.

The number of heads of service, it was recommended, could be reduced to five or six posts.

Northgate also recommended that rather then the council’s two change management teams, a smaller team with an improved skill set should direct transformation in the council.

The consultants were appointed as the council’s efficiency partner months later.