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Almost half Birmingham council workforce on ‘redundancy stand-by’

Almost half Birmingham council workforce on ‘redundancy stand-by’

🕔17.Dec 2014

The scale of job losses at Birmingham city council shows no sign of slowing and matches any of the factory closures during the manufacturing shake-out of the 1980s, says chief blogger Paul Dale.

Almost 5,600 employees – getting on for half of Birmingham city councils’ already depleted workforce – have been put on redundancy stand-by.

They must take part in a competitive process if they want to keep their job – and they may have to become multi-skilled and work across departments sometimes at odd hours of the day and night.

Out of the pool of 5,570 staff selected to receive Section 188 Notices informing them of possible redundancy, some 1,029 will eventually be sacked – either volunteering to depart, or forced to go.

In fact, the true human toll of the council’s downsizing programme is much greater. The figure of 1,029 represents full time equivalent posts (FTE) and the number of people actually affected could be between 1,500 and 2,000.

Typically, many of the jobs will be part time, low paid and carried out by women.

Birmingham council has already seen its workforce cut by just over a third from 20,000 FTE in 2010 to 12,735.

No one can say for certain, but it is possible that the figure will plummet to less than 7,000 by 2019 as the Government’s austerity cost-cutting programme continues to ravage public services.

Ten years ago the total council workforce, excluding schools, stood at more than 25,000.

This clear-out is on a par with any of the big factory closures that scarred Birmingham in the 1980s and 1990s, and could over a period of time turn out to be the biggest single shift in employment patterns the city has known in modern times.

The council has cut spending by £462 million since 2010 and expects to have to identify a further £338 million by 2017-18, which means that over a seven year period Britain’s largest public authority will have shed just shy of £1 billion from its budget.

The scale of the challenge in identifying those to be made redundant and making sure the processes used are consistent and fair is such that the Council House HR department has to “gear up” for its greatest challenge.

HR director Tarik Chawdry said he expects that an average of 550 individuals a month will be processed in an exercise to determine whether their skills are required for a slimmed down council.

There is a fresh sensitivity around the re-shaping of the workforce following criticism from the Kerslake Review which criticised the council for a lack of strategic planning when determining how to drastically reduce staffing levels. No cabinet member has responsibility for HR and there is no single chief officer charged with organising “people change and workforce planning”.

The fact that the jobs axe is falling under a Labour controlled council is acutely embarrassing, even shocking, to many councillors whose life has been spent venerating and protecting the public sector.

Kingstanding councillor Peter Kane, a former full time trade union official, confessed he was “dumbstruck” at the scale of job losses already approved and the prospect of far worse to come.

Cllr Kane directed his anger at council HR officials at a meeting of the employment committee: “As a former trade unionist I take no pleasure in this at all. We are talking about people’s lives and doing it in such a calm atmosphere. It is unreal.”

Sutton Coldfield Conservative councillor Maureen Cornish took a more robust view, insisting that private industry had been shedding jobs “for years” and there was “no problem” for the council to scrap its generous enhanced redundancy payments in favour of the statutory minimum.

Cllr Cornish added: “I think local authorities have to start to act more like private companies. It’s not nice but everyone has been used to having a slightly more cushioned outcome. Life’s not like that now. Things have to start to get different quite rapidly.”

Some who lost their council jobs have been transferred to arms-length or mutual organisations as the local authority transfers service delivery to the private and third sectors. These people still have a job, but over time are likely to lose generous terms and conditions they enjoyed in their public sector employment.

Birmingham, though, has a long way to go to match the performance of the Conservative controlled London Borough of Brent which has become a standard bearer for Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ vision of slimmed down local government.

According to the public services union Unison, Brent Council will have shed about 90 per cent of its workforce between 2012 and the end of 2015 – down from 3,200 to 332.

In the space of 18 months Barnet outsourced care for people with disabilities, legal services, cemeteries and crematoriums, IT, finance, HR, planning and regeneration, trading standards and licensing, management of council housing, environmental health, procurement, parking and the highways department.

The council is now considering offloading another tranche of services, including libraries, rubbish collection, street gritters and children’s speech therapy.

The really big Birmingham outsourcing decision – contracting out refuse collection and street cleaning – has been kicked back until after the General Election, for obvious reasons. The city’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition backed away from privatising the bins three or four years ago, but Labour may find it has little option but to re-visit the idea.

The Kerslake Review picked up on this and effectively accused the council of refusing to make savings on Fleet and Waste Management that most other local authorities in the country had already realised.

The council is committed under the terms of the £29 million Government grant it received to introduce wheelie bins to test its refuse collection services against private sector providers as a precursor to possible privatisation.

Such a move, some suspect, may be the final straw for old-style Labour councillors like Peter Kane. But with Ed Miliband and Ed Balls apparently accepting George Osborne’s spending cuts for the time being, Birmingham may be forced down the path of the ultimate privatisation, a course of action that will inevitably invite industrial action from the trade unions.

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