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As the council faces up to another 40% of cuts, or so-called ‘efficiency savings’’, we take a look at the record so far with a particular focus.

Words and research: Lucas Batt and Adam Cantwell-Corn

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(Design Chris Woodward)

The public sector is bloated and public sector workers are living high on the hog. Or so the rationale goes for the massive cuts handed down to councils by central government. But are these cuts, euphemistically known as ‘efficiency savings’, and the creation of a so called ‘flexible workforce’ actually causing inefficiency? Exclusive Cable data analysis from the past few years seems to indicate that the impact of cuts on staff is causing massive inefficiencies in the council.


Decrease in council employees between 2011 – 2015

Beginning in 2011, the axe has fallen on Bristol City Council workers. With many roles not replaced and hundreds of job losses, the council employed almost 2,000 fewer employees in September 2015 than March 2011. This represents a 22% staff reduction as the council implemented a programme of at least £83 million worth of cuts.


Increase in agency staff in 2014 from 2013

2014 saw the council dramatically increase its use of staff hired through an agency and increased casual workers not on secure contracts by 18.5%, despite a significant decrease in previous years. The council pays for both the staff member and a fee to agencies such as Randstad, a multinational recruitment firm.

A trade union source from within the council stated that employees are under increased pressure as a result of having to train and supervise inexperienced agency and casual staff. According to the source, employees driven by a “public sector work ethic” are taking on more and more work despite decreasing capacity, leading to burnout and stress related absences as “there’s only so long people can work at that level before you reach breaking point”. This causes a “false economy” of savings when experienced staff are made redundant and replaced by agency staff, placing a burden on remaining council employees to train the new staff or just do the extra work themselves.


Working days lost at the council due to stress, anxiety and depression over 2013, 2014, 2015*

Over 17,000 of these days were lost in 2014 (a 10% increase from 2013), of which 5,000 days or 29% were recorded specifically as ‘work related’ stress, depression or anxiety, as the cuts continued and took effect.


Increase in recorded instances of absences due to stress, depression and anxiety per worker, 2013-2015

Currently the biggest single factor for absence, accounting for 22% of days lost due to sickness in 2015. Under intense pressure due to the nature of the work and severe cuts, people in social work and health care roles are suffering the most levels of stress. A social worker who wished to remain anonymous told the Cable of mounting concern about stress levels, and that carrying out “a good, or even decent job of what we’re doing is becoming harder”.


A hidden workforce

These figures are made even more dramatic when considering that agency and casual staff are excluded from sickness absence statistics despite totalling 17.5% extra people working for the council. Although agency workers may be less likely to take days off because of weak employment rights, how many instances of stress related absences are there in this hidden workforce?


Further reduction in central government grant funding to local councils to come by 2018

In a fresh round of nationwide cuts described as a “knockout blow” by the Conservative led Local Government Association, Bristol council is anticipating a massive further £32 million, or 40% cut to funding by 2018. Bearing in mind the visible (and not so visible) impacts on council staff and services so far, what can expect up to then? Will fresh data in 2016 tell a similar (and worse) story?

Detached from reality.

In a bizarre incident in November 2015, David Cameron complained to the local council within his MP constituency that he was “disappointed” at proposed “cuts to frontline services, from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums”. Seemingly ignorant that his government has repeatedly ordered these policies, the Prime minister exposed a clear gap between the rhetoric of cuts as desirable and necessary, and knowledge of the actual impact of cuts on people. As a new round of funding reductions takes effect and councils are forced to make deeper cuts to frontline services, Cameron’s anthem of austerity might start sounding out of tune even to him.

Methodology and Note on findings, or, Arrrrgghhhhh!
  • This analysis took many, many hours and lots of head scratching and hair pulling. A big obstacle to gaining an accurate picture was the unavailability of clear council data on simple things such as how many people were employed at any one point. The research also came across at least two instances where council-published data stood in direct contradiction to one another. Compounding this is a continuously changing approach to recording and presenting data.
  • We know employees are stressed (!), but we call on the council to make recording data uniform and consistent in order to ensure that such research and public interest journalism can continue.
  • The data uses 12 different categories of stress, depression and anxiety as recorded by the council
  • We welcome any feedback or remarks on these findings. Full sourcing and data will be available here soon.
  • *Yearly dates are between 1st November and 31st October.

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