Shropshire in crisis: Friday “lock outs” of staff and customers as council runs out of cash

Shropshire Council can longer afford to operate normally. It is running fast towards becoming a basket case like Northamptonshire. The chief executive has been asked by the cabinet to implement a spending freeze across the council with immediate effect. This will mean “Environment Days”, when staff will work from home on Fridays and “Lock Outs” when all council offices will be shut down at noon on Fridays. The political spin on the announcement to lock staff and customers out of the council on Fridays cannot hide a growing crisis in council finances.

From November, the council will no longer have staff in offices on the last day of the month. Staff will be asked to work from home. These have been labelled Environment Days. “This will begin our transition to mobile and agile working.” That is Orwellian spin born out of desperation because the council cannot afford to operate.

There is no spin on the announcement of “Lock Out” Fridays. All council offices will close at midday every day from Friday. Whoever thought of the phrase “Lock Out” deserves the media booby prize of the year. It is a perfect phrase for revealing that Shropshire Council is locking its doors to the public it serves.

Who the heck answers the phones on Fridays? Crises amongst desperate and vulnerable people tend to peak on Monday and Friday. We are moving towards a council that works a four-day week.

There is no explanation in the memo sent from the chief executive of how people who desperately need help can get in touch. I have asked the chief executive what guarantee there will be that vulnerable people will be supported on Environment Days and Lock Out Fridays. He has not replied.

I sometimes feel ill when I go to Shirehall. There are giant video screens broadcasting propaganda about the wonders of the council non-stop. So very Orwellian. It is a mid-twentieth century concept. Entirely retro.

Nowhere in Shirehall are there interactive screens where people can give feedback to the council and engage. This might come. But the priority is promoting the council’s image. It wants to disguise the fact that it is beginning to fail. It doesn’t want to tell you it is walking away from its public duties.

I am old enough to remember the Three Day Week. Soon we will see the Three Day Council in Shropshire.

I don’t think we are at Section 114 stage yet in Shropshire. Section 114 is the equivalent of a company facing bankruptcy.[1] But the council is struggling. It is close to becoming a shipwreck.

I have never known a council to ban recruitment in August as Shropshire Council did this year. That usually doesn’t happen until January.

We have had a freeze on recruitment. Staff and the public will be “locked out” of offices to save money.

I do not believe for one minute that this is the end of slaughter of public services in Shropshire Council because of the total mismanagement by leading councillors which dates back to 2009.

Memo from chief executive of Shropshire Council to staff

Dear Colleague

This year’s budget is proving to be a challenge and consequently I have been asked by the Cabinet to implement a spending freeze across the Council with immediate effect.

This means that Officers should not commit any expenditure that can be avoided.  If you are in any doubt, please consult your line manager/Director.  In previous years trusting staff to apply appropriate and discretionary judgement has delivered excellent results and so this approach will be taken again this year.

In addition to the spending freeze, we also want to save money in other ways.  This will include:

Environment Days:  On the last Friday of every month, beginning in November, staff will be asked to work from home.  This will begin our transition to mobile and agile working.  We will monitor savings in travel and opening buildings.  We are aware that for some this will be relatively easy, whilst for others it will throw up problems – which we want reported to line managers and on to Directors, so that we can resolve these.  This marks a change in the management approach where managers allocate and monitor work alone, rather than time at the workplace. This should reduce travel, heating and lighting costs and our impact on the environment.

Lock Out:  In addition to ‘Environment Days’, we plan from January 2019 to enforce a closure of all buildings at 12.00 noon on Friday and ask staff to work on a mobile/agile basis.

Printing:  The cost of printing in the Council is a colossal £300,000 per annum with over 1.5 million copies being made. We are now monitoring print by team and soon by individual.  As we move to being mobile and agile, I would ask you to please only print when it is essential.

As stated above, we realise that some of these initiatives will cause problems for some staff and this is an opportunity to raise these with your line manager. As we move to become a more mobile and agile organisation we need to identify problems and barriers quickly and find solutions.

I am confident that with your help the budget overspend can be reduced. I am grateful in advance for your cooperation.

Clive Wright

Notes

[1]. Chief finance officers (CFOs) in councils are the only officers whose powers exceed those of the council leader. The officer is often known a Section 114 officer. Section 151 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 insists that councils set a balanced budget by 11 March each year for the following year. If a balanced budget is not set by that date, the CFO might issue a Section 114 notice. If at any point during the year, a council’s finances look out of control, for example by raiding reserves to pay for day-to-day spending, the CFO might issue a Section 114 notice. My old employer, Northamptonshire County Council has earned its place in history for issuing two 114 notices within months. The council was taken over by the secretary of state who appointed commissioners to run the council. This is the equivalent of putting a council into administration.

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