The first cuts are the deepest

Published: 7 March 2024


Sector experts, including Faerfield's Martin Tucker, talk to Martin Ford about the effects of job cuts on councils’ resilience, the impact of austerity on the number of leadership positions, and the downsides of ‘super’ directorates.

Most councils are currently approaching the culmination of one of the most challenging budget-setting periods yet faced by the sector.

In an effort to balance the books and with few options to reduce costs, many have resorted to staff reductions. Leeds City Council is to shed 750 full-time equivalent posts by the end of 2024-25, Nottingham City Council has proposed cutting 550 jobs, and 180 posts will be made redundant at Kent CC.

While the scale of the figures in recent months has brought the issue into sharp focus, reductions in headcounts have been a continuing trend in local government since the advent of austerity. The trade union Unison has estimated half a million local government workers have lost their jobs in the past decade.

Managing director of executive recruitment firm Faerfield, Martin Tucker, told The MJ: ‘Nobody enjoys trying to shrink an organisation, especially one that delivers important services to the public, but a lot of our leaders across local government are skilled at that – they have had to do it for the last decade-plus.

‘This is another wave in a longer-term challenge in the way local authorities are underfunded for the things they are expected to do.’

Tucker added: ‘It’s difficult to see where savings can be made, choices are limited – the biggest cost to your organisation is the people you employ. There are no other alternatives.’

Anthony Payne, president of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) said an even greater issue than redundancies was local authorities ‘leaving vacancies as unfilled and posts finishing at the end of fixed-term contracts with unspent staffing budget used to plug gaps’.

He added: ‘This leaves many of the day to day services that we all depend on under capacity and struggling to meet expectations.’

The hard won accumulation of experience from job cuts in the past has given today’s senior officers a taste of the repercussions they may face in the coming months and years.

Tucker said: ‘Councils are acutely aware decisions made now have long-term impacts for organisational health. Last time we saw significant cuts it affected organisational resilience – you end up cutting out parts of the corporate centre, back-office functions and you erode capacity and capability to change for the future.’

Senior officers may also find their own numbers dwindling as the pipeline of talent coming up the ranks is constricted.

‘When we have cuts to a workforce, we are cutting out the opportunity for them to become a future leader,’ Tucker said. ‘There’s not enough coming through whovhave the ability and appetite to do the job.

‘There’s a talent imbalance that is a long-term problem for the sector. There are talented people, but not enough to go around.’ Chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), Mo Baines agreed it was a growing issue.

She said: ‘The tradition across the public sector has been one of career pathways, learning service operations and within that gaining the supervisory and managerial skills necessary for the next tranche of potential officer leaders. Redundancy and recruitment freezes have eroded those pathways to a career in the public sector.’

Furthermore, austerity has also taken its toll on the number of leadership positions in many authorities, leading them to be consolidated into bigger ‘super’ directorates. A survey by APSE has found chief officers with wider portfolios were increasingly finding the time they had to interact with fellow staff and members was reducing.

Baines said: ‘There are bigger gaps between the operational side and managerial staff. As found in the APSE survey, job stress is becoming a factor as greater responsibility is placed on fewer staff and managing limited resources – so the opportunities to learn, and for councils to “grow their own” in terms of future leaders is becoming less.’

This leaves the sector with an ageing workforce in senior positions. While this would have been an issue in past decades, it is particularly problematic when this demographic has been deserting the workplace in the wake of the pandemic, after reassessing their work-life balance or simply suffering from burnout.

Tucker said: ‘The sector has known for some time it has shifted towards people in their 50s – you can’t rely on those people to keep going. There’s a danger organisations lose capacity to remain resilient.’

The emergence of super directorates can also leave authorities looking to generalists to fill roles, diluting the skills available to the council at senior levels.

Baines said: ‘While in some cases this may be seen as a positive to broaden spans of control and embed a more corporate model across organisations, it can also mean that the details on some specialist areas becomes heavily reliant on generalists and the skills to get into the workable detail may produce overreliance on others, or indeed on third parties.’

She highlighted planning as an example of a discipline currently suffering from a skills shortage where this is proving to be an issue.

‘This is not a healthy position when councils already feel that the planning system is loaded towards the interests of developers rather than local places,’ she added.

However, Baines is hopeful that better cross-boundary working among public sector bodies can reopen career pathways in the future.

‘We urgently need to consider workplace planning on a pan-public sector basis and anchored to localities. It seems that with little opportunity to increase monetary resources we should at least look to gain some traction on people and career opportunities in a more innovative way.’

Originally published in the MJ.


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