Havering Council invites all staff to request voluntary redundancy

Councillor Damian White, leader of Havering Council. Picture: Mark Sepple/Havering Council

Havering Council leader Damian White said he expected roughly 150 people to take voluntary redundancy, with another 250 jobs being lost by other means - Credit: Mark Sepple / Havering Council

Havering Council has just invited all of its staff to apply for voluntary redundancy as part of a bid to axe 400 posts. But is the authority already short-staffed? Some councillors and residents think so, reports Charles Thomson.

For three weeks, Viv Woodham and her neighbours were scared to open their windows.

In last month’s storms, sheds outside flats in Firbank Road, Collier Row, partially collapsed.

Their asbestos roof shattered. Lumps of the deadly substance flew all over a communal area where children play and residents hang their washing.

Given that inhaling asbestos can cause cancer, residents called Havering Council daily to try to get it cleared.

"All I'm doing is calling the council," Viv told the Recorder this week. "I phoned every department I could think of. Not one person got back to us."

Havering Council has since told the Recorder that the report was initially added to the "non-emergency jobs" list before it was confirmed this week that asbestos was present.

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“We are currently reviewing our reporting processes to prevent this kind of delay from happening in future,” it added.

Asbestos in Firbank Road, Collier Row

Lumps of asbestos flew all over a communal area shared by flats in Firbank Road, Collier Row, during last month's storms - Credit: Carol Perry

“Voluntary release”

Opposition councillors have been complaining of such delays since last summer, blaming staff shortages.

But last week, the council emailed all of its staff.

Citing a “need to make significant savings”, the council wants to axe 400 jobs - 16 per cent of its workforce, according to Unison.

It is battling government cuts, inflation and ballooning social care costs due to the pandemic.

“We don’t want to make these reductions through compulsory redundancy,” the email said.

“Instead we want to offer every employee a choice to request voluntary release.”

Council leader Damian White predicted on Time FM that around 150 people might accept the offer.

“There’s a lot of people in their late 50s, early 60s that would love to take redundancy,” he said.

“It’s proved to be quite popular. Certain people, certain age – they take the redundancy. Their pension’s topped up and they can go on and it’s a win-win for everyone.”

“Concerning”

“I find that quite insulting,” one council worker said, speaking anonymously.

“Some people will want to retire or change career and that’s an opportunity for them, but it deletes their post. So who takes on that work? Austerity has reduced the workforce to its bones already.”

Havering Council voluntary redundancy email

An email was sent to all Havering Council staff last week, inviting them to apply for voluntary redundancy - Credit: Archant

Gabby Lawler, branch secretary at Havering Unison, agreed, calling the plan “deeply concerning”.

“Unison believes the proposals are very short-sighted and the saving targets will just put more pressure on the existing and already stretched workforce," she said.

The result, she added, would be delays to services and rising staff sickness and burnout.

Delays

Last September, councillors raised concerns in a meeting.

“We are finding lots of areas where there is a shortfall in staff,” Cllr Gillian Ford said. “You’re getting responses six months later.”

There had been a ten per cent cut in seasonal staff and public areas were not being maintained, councillors complained.

“Staff have contacted me on regular occasions regarding the staff level is at breaking point,” added Cllr Barry Mugglestone, who reported waits of up to 22 weeks for services.

South Hornchurch councillor Graham Williamson

Hornchurch councillor Graham Williamson said he feared the voluntary redundancy scheme would result in a loss of valuable experience - Credit: Graham Williamson

Cllr White attributed delays to the loss of experienced staff.

“I think what’s happened is that those members of staff that have worked for the council for a significant amount of time and have built up that relationship with those councillors, once they leave the absence is more noticeable,” he said.

But, say opponents, those are the sort of staff he told Time FM might be more inclined to take redundancy.

"We will likely lose a lot of valuable experience,” said Cllr Graham Williamson.

Council

Asbestos was finally removed from Firbank Road on March 9, after election candidate Carol Perry raised concerns.

But residents were unimpressed at the council's slow response – and by news that it plans to axe 400 jobs.

“I think it's disgusting," said Viv. "How can they cut staff when there’s so much work to be done?”

Bricks and asbestos in Firbank Road, Collier Row

A row of sheds was damaged in last month's storms, leaving bricks and asbestos all over a communal area in Firbank Road, Collier Row - Credit: Carol Perry

The council said “hard-to-recruit" roles, like social workers and planners, were “unlikely” to be considered for release.

Cllr White said Havering had to make £13m in savings, £7m of which would come from job cuts.

“This will be done by not filling vacant posts, reducing the number of consultants and agency staff and offering voluntary release to those who wish to leave,” he said.

Those seeking redundancy will be asked to explain how their work will get done.

The council expects this to lead to “innovation”, it said, and “improved public services”.

Of Firbank Road, it said: “The report was initially added to a list of over 600 other non-emergency jobs following Storm Eunice, as there was no indication the debris included asbestos.

"Because this was only confirmed this week – it took much longer to clear than usual.

“We are currently reviewing our reporting processes to prevent this kind of delay from happening in future.”