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20,000 council employees made redundant since 2010

20,000 council employees made redundant since 2010

🕔14.Jan 2019

The lifestyle magazine, Esquire, reckoned that three really ‘Can’t Miss’ gifts for men this Christmas were a temperature-regulating ceramic mug, noise-masking sleepbugs and a mini-nap pillow. Now, I’m the last to boast a thrill-packed lifestyle, but I’d be seriously quite insulted with any, let alone all, of that hyphenated trio, writes Chris Game.

Thank goodness, therefore, that the Local Government Chronicle was a bit more imaginative, realising that what would really perk up the lives of sad souls like me, making pillows and sleepbugs completely redundant even on Boxing Day, would be the Chronicle’s “Six best interactive maps from 2018”!  Go on, admit it: you’re just a tad excited too, aren’t you?

The first one, in fact, you were nearly treated to back in September, for what will become obvious reasons.  It accompanied a two-part news item, neither statistic in which seemed any less shocking than the other: that since 2010, English councils collectively have spent almost £4 billion in making nearly a quarter of a million staff redundant.  Yes, that’s SPENT IN, not SAVED BY.

It’s a coincidence that it matches the £4 billion and rising that’s going on Brexit no-deal contingency planning, but in terms of its human consequences – for both those directly and consequentially affected – surely even worse.

It was the map’s colouration, though, that immediately caught the eye: lots of canary, a fair bit of marigold, some splashes of apricot up in the north-west, but just a single blob of what just had to be rust – otherwise identifiable as Birmingham.

Plus, to rub it in, not a normal map scale running from, say, 0 to 10,000 – but one in which that rust blob’s number of staff redundancies is itself the top of the scale: 8,769.

And of course, were there a separate map showing the cost of all these compulsory and voluntary redundancies to their respective councils, Birmingham would have had its own colour patch there too – with a total of nearly £185 million spent on “associated exit packages”.

That’s about a third of this year’s total adult social care budget, or a quarter of the schools budget – paid over that eight-year period to people NOT to continue contributing to the provision of these and other overstretched services. 

To those all too familiar with central government’s virtual halving of councils’ grant funding since 2010, such figures may be unsurprising.

Generally, though, these things get reported in overall financial terms – for example, the 30% average cuts in real terms council spending over the 8-year period – so these less familiar council-level employee numbers seemed worth examining in a bit more depth.

This is always worth doing anyway with potentially tricky statistics involving Birmingham – because there’s always a ‘Council spokesperson’ popping up to state the bleedin’ obvious about it being, by a distance, the country’s largest urban authority outside London.  Obvious, and not, on its own, terribly helpful.

What do you make, for example, of Birmingham’s payout total being over twice the size of the next highest (Staffordshire), over 2½ times those of Manchester and Liverpool, with Leeds, the 2nd largest urban authority, out of the ‘top ten’ altogether?

I started therefore to produce a West Midlands table, initially just to see for myself at least how Birmingham’s figures compared with those of the other six West Midlands metropolitan districts.

The most informative test, of course, would have been to compare the LGC’s redundancy figures with councils’ workforce numbers for, say, 2010/11.  But, as anyone who’s ever tried knows well, getting comparable workforce statistics out of any bunch of councils even for a single, most recent, year is nigh on impossible – as the Government Equalities Office (GEO) found back in April as it sought to measure and compare councils’ gender pay gaps.

Lacking both the GEO’s statutory backing and resources, and indeed its commitment, I satisfied myself with indicating in my table’s first two columns simply the relative population sizes of our seven met districts and my very guessy estimate of their respective fractions of the total current WM council workforce of probably a little over 30,000.

And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have bothered you with even this, had it not been for the appearance of one of those statistical oddities that excite us social inadequates: that – honestly, without any fiddling – the official total of West Midlands council redundancies since 2010 comes to EXACTLY 20,000!  Almost as if they decided to stop counting.

And yes, it would have been neat if the total of exit payments had come to exactly £400 million, but, even with as much ‘rounding up’ as I could justify, I couldn’t quite manage it.

Much more serious is what these figures actually represent.  The Birmingham ‘Council spokesperson’ quoted by the LGC noted that the large payout figure had to be “viewed in the context of its size back in 2010, [when] we had approximately twice as many employees as we do now.”

It seems worth repeating: the services Birmingham Council is delivering today are being provided by a council workforce half the size of that just eight years ago.

There seems little doubt that proportionately this represents the largest workforce reduction in our region. But not necessarily by VERY much.  By my guesstimates, Coventry, Walsall and Wolverhampton have all cut their workforces by close to 40%, Dudley and Sandwell by around a quarter.

Which brings us on to regions. The LGC did publish a regional map of these redundancy figures, though using the much larger official English regions, rather than the metropolitan ones. Its statistics too were interesting.

The West Midlands region is significantly larger than the East Midlands, but only about a quarter larger by population. Yet its councils’ total redundancy payouts (£662 million) were well over three times the East Midlands’ total.

Which I personally wouldn’t have guessed – and enables me to conclude this blog with another of the LGC’s fascinating maps (Oh yes, they are).

We all know about England’s north-south economic, cultural, linguistic, political, social, house-price and everything else divide, to the point of irritation if you happen to live in the so-called Midlands.

But in recent years there’s been growing talk of an east-west divide, economically at least.  Certainly, since the 2008 financial crisis, the figures suggest that the west, including supposedly the West Midlands as well as the big northern cities, has recovered significantly faster – some suggest almost twice as fast – as the east, including Leeds, Newcastle and the East Midlands.

Don’t worry – this isn’t about where the border should be drawn, why the Midlands Engine for Growth includes areas outside either East or West Midlands, or any of that stuff.

It’s simply this: why, if the West half of the country is supposed to be doing so much better, is the pay of local government chief executives – from north to south, not just the obvious bits, but throughout, and measurably – higher in the East?

London and the South East having the highest salaries is given; spilling over into East Anglia understandable; but why should the North-East, Yorkshire & the Humber have higher salaries than the North West, and the East Midlands higher than the West Midlands?

What are you looking at me for?  I don’t know – I just set the questions!

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