Council confidence: Enough is enough

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

Heather Wakefield, Unison’s head of local government, police and justice, analyses her organisation’s scathing research into the confidence of council workers in the future of local services.

It’s a bleak indictment of the state of local councils when the very people working for them have no confidence in the future of local services. Recent Unison research – a survey of 21,000 local council staff – highlights the uphill battle that both people accessing services, and those delivering them, experience on a daily basis.   

The breadth of services delivered by local government is little understood by the public or policymakers. Local council workers operate crematoriums, they are care workers, tax collectors, park rangers... They are also social workers, librarians, safety officers in fire and rescue services, youth and community workers, engineers, refuse collectors, and early years educators. 

Our research finds common themes between all these services. At best, services are in decline; at worst, they are collapsing. Around 83% of local council workers say that budget cuts in the past two years have had an impact on their ability to do their jobs as best they can, and fewer than 10% believe that local residents receive the help and support they need at the right time. 

The scale of the impact of cuts across all services is why we at Unison are campaigning for more funding for local councils. Cuts to public services are putting people of all ages at risk. Care workers in our survey describe how a lack of time and resources is leaving them debilitated and unable to help people to the best of their ability.

Social workers describe daily firefighting and the frustration of spending more time on administrative work because support staff posts have been cut. “We are constantly turning down public assistance as there is no funding to help,” one worker told us.  

Young people are unable to access libraries staffed only by security guards and CCTV unless accompanied by an adult – compounding the cuts to youth services and removing yet another space that young people can access freely. 

The lack of funding is placing whole communities in jeopardy. Other services like parks maintenance, environmental health, and the administrative challenge of keeping services running have been hit too. Potholes in roads and broken bridges fall into disrepair, environmental health workers describe an increase in the rodent population, and refuse collection workers struggle to complete rounds with fewer team members. 

Beyond this, there is the strain that council workers themselves are under as they battle with impossible workloads and high levels of stress. Evident throughout the thousands of comments in our survey is a clear passion for local government, and real belief in the services it provides. 

Whether it’s customer service assistants frustrated they can no longer help vulnerable people fill in forms in the council offices, or social workers fighting to keep their heads above the water, the mental health of workers has deteriorated significantly. And it’s mostly because they no longer have the resources to provide the services that they want to, indeed used to, provide.

It’s apparent throughout our research that unfilled vacancies, mass redundancies and budget cuts have now gone too far. So far that nearly 50% of staff are thinking about leaving their jobs for something altogether less stressful. Without these people, services would disappear. 

As the bins aren’t collected, the elderly aren’t cared for, and the young have dwindling access to services, the impact of these cuts is set to become more apparent. The message is painfully clear: councils are at breaking point, and without additional funding things will only get worse. 

We are calling on the government to bring these crisis conditions to an end by making more money available to local councils in the Autumn Budget. If the government is serious about communities and the lives of individuals, it will have to act.


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