Staffing worry rejected by council leader as opposition warns of 'crisis'

Havering council leader Damian White

Council leader Damian White said there has not been a "significant exodus" of staff from the authority - Credit: Mark Sepple/Havering Council

Leader Damian White has dismissed concerns about alleged staffing shortages at Havering Council despite the political opposition claiming the borough is "on the brink of crisis".

Councillors discussed a motion from the Upminster and Cranham Residents Association (UCRA) at a meeting on Wednesday (September 1), calling for a review into the authority's recruitment.

The motion claimed "significant" staffing shortages had led to "high volumes" of work for staff in the highways and planning enforcement departments.

This comes after the Recorder revealed it had seen an email where the planning enforcement team wrote the service had more than 800 open investigations and officers "are unable to keep up with service demand".

UCRA Cllr John Tyler put forward the motion and told the meeting: "I think we'd all agree that having a full complement of staff who are content in their jobs and focused on the roles they perform is one of the most important parts of an efficient local authority."

He claimed recruitment and retention of staff had been an issue for the council before the Covid pandemic and Brexit.

Cllr Tyler added: "There has been a drain in knowledge across many departments.

"It's not just about recruiting people with qualifications, we've lost staff with years of built-up local knowledge and you can't easily replace that.

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"Many departments are creaking at the seams."

The Conservative group put forward an amendment which suggested a briefing with the head of paid service about the staffing situation in highways and planning enforcement and what action was being taken.

But Cllr Tyler felt the Tory amendment was too narrow in only referring to those departments.

"Where are the time scales in the amendment? We need to know what is happening now."

The amendment described staffing shortages in several council departments as "temporary", but Cllr Tyler questioned what that meant.

"How temporary is temporary? Will we be seeing improvements by the end of the year?"

Council leader Damian White told the meeting Havering's staffing turnover is at a "historic low" of 7.4 per cent, claiming it is below the London average.

He admitted some staff had left but said there had not been a "significant exodus".

Cllr White backed the council's Choose Havering approach, which its website said commits to "creating an organisation that is the best it can be and asks employees to pledge to make positive choices every day".

He said: "We are empowering staff across this authority to choose to work for Havering, we are investing within them to provide the type of skills we need as an organisation to grow, develop and enhance."

Some councillors spoke out in support of the UCRA motion.

Opposition leader Ray Morgon said: "I believe that Havering is on the brink of crisis.

"Staff are leaving in their droves and many services are failing or starting to fail.

"As a member of the appointments committee, I know how difficult it has been for us to recruit new, quality officers.

"I believe that Havering now has a poor reputation in not being able to attract good, new officers."

Independent Residents' Group councillor Graham Williamson said there are not enough officers and that the council "need to get to the bottom of it".

Tory cabinet member for housing Joshua Chapman told the meeting demand on services had significantly increased because of the Covid pandemic.

On planning enforcement, he said: "We are without doubt receiving a larger number of new enforcement complaints than ever before.

"More residents are now at home on a regular basis and planning breaches are now more readily noticed and reported to the council.

"That has added significant pressure to our teams and to caseloads.

"The notion that staff leaving has led to a number of open enforcement cases doesn't make sense and I don't believe paints a fair picture of the situation."

Before the meeting, Cllr White said the council is "one of the most effective councils in the country on planning enforcement notices during 2020/21".

Members narrowly voted to adopt the Conservative amendment; it was approved by 26 votes to 23, with two abstentions.