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Recession spells double trouble

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The downturn is hitting even areas with skills shortages and, in those services that escape the axe, staff face greatly increased workloads.

Until recently, councils would do anything short of parading the streets in a sandwich board in their efforts to recruit people in professions with skill shortages.

Such individuals had their pick of jobs, and could expect to be tempted with high salaries, cheap housing under the key worker scheme or the lure of rapid promotion.

Despite the recession, members of these professions - and others such as senior management and finance - may not usually be queuing at Jobcentre Plus, but they have started to fear for either their jobs or the pressure of work that will be demanded.

Things are obviously bad when those with shortage skills find they are in less demand.

A survey by the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers found that 13% of councils had axed jobs in response to the credit crunch, and 22.1% had a recruitment freeze.

They have been caught between a dangerous combination of rising demand for some services and falling income from others.

Income from planning fees, property searches and building control has collapsed along with the property market, while the recession has reduced income from car parking, leisure and contributions from developers to regeneration projects.

LGA chair Margaret Eaton (Con) pointed to the bind in which councils find themselves.

The obvious way to save money might be to make staff redundant, but having fewer people in employment worsens the state of the local economy, something that councils are duty bound to nurture. “There is a fine balance for councils between helping to stimulate the economy and keeping council tax down,” Cllr Eaton says.

“There are no simple answers or quick-fix solutions.”

LGC looks at planning, social work and environmental health - three areas where until recently councils suffered staff shortages.


Planners think they do have a simple answer to their problems, though it may have less appeal for finance directors.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has argued - with backing from the Department for Communities & Local Government - that their authorities should not sack planners who work in development control but redeploy them into planning policy so that councils are well positioned for an eventual recovery.

After all, the downturn does not mean that planning’s underlying skill shortage has gone, and if redundant planners leave the profession they will be more difficult and costly to recruit in a few years’ time.

Planning Officers Society president Phil Kirby says: “Local authority leaders and chief executives, rather than making cuts, should consider redeploying planners within the service, to provide the planning policy framework and ensure efficient development management processes are in place to aid recovery when it happens.”

Plans have to be in place to establish what may be built where in each area, and delays in drawing these up can hamper development.

RTPI policy and practice director Rynd Smith says so far only a few councils have shed planners or discussed doing so. “The number of councils retrenching seems to be relatively low. That’s clearly a problem but it’s not as bad as it could be,” Mr Smith says.

He suggests councils should be bold and look for the opportunities presented by recession to increase the range of skills available to them.

“There are some highly qualified people with project management experience becoming available because house builders are absolutely retrenching,” he says.

“It’s an interesting opportunity for local authorities to fill vacancies with people who are normally scarce.”

Mr Smith also suggests the government should give councils a financial incentive to divert planners to plan-making, by changing the rules for payment of housing and planning delivery grant “so that it is tied to the up-to-dateness of plans”.

The logic of using skilled planners to prepare for an upturn is impeccable, but where will councils find the cash?

Social services

In social services, another hard-pressed service, councils always need to be alive to the human and reputational costs of any disaster in social services - just ask Haringey Council - and were any such event to follow on from job losses the effects would be politically catastrophic.

This factor perhaps helps to keep social work largely immune from redundancies. The profession’s issue is more one of the recession driving increased demands upon officers.

Debbie Jones, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ resources and sustainability committee, says: “The recent media and political attention on the pressures on front-line child protection services, due to high vacancy levels and problems with retaining staff, should strengthen the hand of senior children’s services managers in discussions about staffing budgets.

“Local politicians and senior management should be very aware of the impact that redundancies would have on a local authority’s ability to keep children safe.”

Bernard Walker, co-chair of the workforce development network of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, says that recession increases demands on staff from factors that include retired people who suffer from fuel poverty because of rising energy costs, and the closure of employment as a route out of poverty for people of working age.

“We are always keen to see employment as a real option to help people out of poverty, and the social consequences are real if people are unemployed - it may lead to family breakdown,” he says.

Mr Walker, service director at Wigan MBC, sees differences between the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s and now, that he fears may pile pressure on his colleagues.

“In previous recessions, it was lower income groups affected,” he says. “This time round my impression is that it has affected people who would not have been hit before, like those in finance, and so they have no experience to draw on.”

In one respect though, the recession may have a silver lining in improving the supply of care assistants, who are less likely to be lured away by a job somewhere else.

“The retail sector offers irregular and part-time hours to suit people and fringe benefits that we could never match,” says Mr Walker.

“When a large supermarket opens somewhere social care recruitment becomes difficult, and that may now change.”

One front-line social services manager working in southern England agrees: “Recessions do increase demand for social work and lots of other public services as coping strategies in families reduce due to family breakdown, and unemployment.”

This manager is not aware of any council reducing social work posts and notes that recruitment remains problematic in children’s services, even in traditionally popular fields like fostering and child disability, because of the “high turnover and burnout” among qualified social workers.

Social work may sound a safe place to be, but those thinking of changing direction into it might pause.

“Training is now at degree level and takes three years plus a post qualifying year,” the manager notes.

Environmental health

Even in a recession, those who can afford to eat out will still do so. But cutbacks may mean they should be particularly careful about what they eat, and where.

One economy being made by cashstrapped caterers is to cut back on cleaning, and one being made by councils is to reduce the number of environmental health officers, a profession which is normally plagued by skill shortages.

Paul Robinson, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, says: “There has been an issue for some time that councils cannot recruit environmental health officers, but in the last couple of months our assessment is that some posts are being lost in redundancy rounds.

“Our concern is the risk to public health involved. It’s all fine while nothing happens, but as soon as a council gets an outbreak of e-coli or something there is trouble.

“If food premises are being inspected less often, the risks increase. In a recession the first thing they cut back on is the cleaning.”

The other half of environmental health, which deals with housing fitness, noise nuisance and other forms of antisocial behaviour will see cuts, but without any fall in demand for its services, Mr Robinson fears.

Unitary reorganisation has also hit environmental health, with those councils that have gone through the process having made “considerable cuts to environmental health posts in the name of efficiency”, he says.

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