'Poor corporate leadership with considerable understaffing...'
Salford City Mayor, Paul Dennett, was there in the Guardian recently crowing of the city's success...
"We are lucky in many respects, and have had good fiscal leadership for a long time" he preened "Salford has an extensive capital programme and capital investments, which have sparked growth at MediaCityUK and the Quays, bring in commercial revenue, and regenerate areas, resulting in much needed business rates. We also have significant population growth, contributing to a growing tax base."
It all sounds great in soundbites but behind the scenes staff are stressed out and in rebellion, Business Rates and Council Tax are not being collected, and the Council's 'digital transformation' project, where everything is being pushed online, is going pear shaped.
Indeed, Salford Council has one of the worst records in country for collecting Business Rates and Council Tax, while staff are being inundated with phone calls about online forms and processes.
Now, the Council's own workers have had enough and yesterday members of Salford City UNISON lobbied the Council's Workforce Panel, where the Mayor and senior councillors were discussing a 'Customer Services Redesign' which the union has damned, arguing it will make matters worse...
The official UNISON response to the Council's proposals makes harrowing reading...
"In recent years our members have worked in increasingly intolerable conditions due to poor staffing levels which have led to Salford City Council having considerable backlogs in processing of Housing Benefits, hundreds of calls abandoned daily and some of the worst collection rates of Council Tax and Business Rates in the UK" stated Salford UNISON's Ameen Hadi in letter to the Council.
"In the last three years our members have raised positive suggestions to provide a better service for the people of Salford and increase the revenue raising arm of the Council" he added "Unfortunately these suggestions have not been acted upon."
Due to massive reductions in staffing, UNISON now states that there is a 'crisis' in Customer Services... "Many [workers] have suffered from increasing levels of stress and anxiety" states the union in a report seen by the Salford Star "Staff have pride in their work but they also recognise that the service, to quote them, is 'on its knees'!"
On Business Rates, the report adds: "Due to the shortage of both inspectors and assessors in this area we believe that the Council has lost millions of pounds in uncollected Business Rates.
"It is not a surprise to our staff that we have the third worst collections rate in the UK!" the union explains "It is not unusual for a business waiting over a year to receive its first bill. Sometimes the bills have gone out so late it is not legally possible to recoup these monies and they are written off."
The Salford Star knows of one case, at Turnpike House, where the building is rented to the NHS and, apparently, over £300,000 was written off in rates as the Council couldn't collect the backlog.
These cases have huge implications for the city, as, due to changes in the Government system, the Council can now keep all of its Business Rates which can offset cuts...
"If a bill isn't created as soon as possible, the charge payer can legally refuse to pay the full charge as it wasn't issued within a 'Reasonable Time', resulting in lost revenue" the report adds "There are business consultants in Salford who give advice on how to legally avoid paying Business Rates, so we're at a disadvantage as soon as a business starts trading."
On Council Tax the union report states: "Council Tax collection is rated in the worst three authorities in the UK. The lack of staff in this area directly has an impact on any genuine implementation of an anti-poverty strategy. Those vulnerable through age, disabilities (mental and physical) struggle to get the support they need.
"Digitisation works fine for those who pay by standing order/direct debit but the method of dealing with those who have a precarious income or unstable lifestyle struggle to get support that continually refers them to online system that they find difficult to understand and have access issues" it adds "Those that maybe committing fraud is also going undetected due to inadequate staffing.
"There is currently a backlog of over 9,000 documents for discounts, exemptions, change of occupier amendments, Gov Tech where amendments are required" it explains "This often dates back months. Approximately 200 court cases are outstanding requiring action. These are Recovery documents relating to cases which may have already been to court, but we still haven't got a payment arrangement in place."
As far as the Mayor's 'growing tax base' comments go, the report is scathing... "Every new building is liable for Council Tax paid by the developer. However because there aren't enough assessors; inspectors are told not to register these properties. This has been the situation for the last year with the Council losing considerable income. This has a further knock on effect when tenants occupy the buildings there is no knowledge of the properties on the system, delaying the process even further."
On Housing Benefits the union report states: "Currently 3,500 pieces of information are waiting to be processed. At times that figure has been double this total. Again this is an area where those on variable incomes and vulnerable will find it difficult to navigate. This often leads to these vulnerable people receiving notice seeking possession or eviction notices due to the backlog in benefits. Being in such a situation can exacerbate medical conditions and leads to extremely stressful environment both for claimants and workers."
On the Contact Centre, which residents phone to sort out issues, the union report states: "A culture has developed where it is usual for two to three hundred calls to be abandoned every day. On certain days this figure can be over a thousand.
"To resolve one issue will regularly take numerous phone calls as staff are instructed to refer them back to the online system" it adds "They are rarely allowed to use their discretion in assessing the vulnerability of the client and deal with the transaction themselves. This leads to a great deal of frustration from the clients and staff have to deal with irate clients who may have waited 20 minutes to get through. Often they are aggressive, abusive, occasionally racist, sexist and homophobic."
The Council is proposing to add just one Business Rates inspector to the team (the union wanted five) and reduce the overall Customer Service workforce by eleven members of staff, while making 'savings' of £220,000. 15% of the workforce will be placed on a higher grading, while four members of staff could see their pay cut.
"We've gone through a transformation project whereby job roles have been re-defined, and it looks like people are going to potentially lose money because of the changes within the job roles" UNISON steward, John, told the Salford Star at yesterday's lobby.
"There are people on a lower grade who are going to receive a long overdue pay rise in line with people already doing the same job as them" he explained "One more inspector in business rates isn't really going to improve the collection of business rates.
"It seems that everything is becoming automated, whereby evidence suggests that people are coming on the phones complaining about the online forms that they are having to fill in" he added "The plan is to deal with the backlog by outsourcing to Northgate."
Outsourcing work to a company called Northgate goes against everything the City Mayor said to the Guardian, when he told the paper that "Northamptonshire is in the predicament it currently is partly due to cuts, but also because of a culture of outsourcing which fragments the delivery of services and increases costs and exposure in the long term."
Another UNISON steward, Stuart, who works as a benefit assessor, sees the problems first hand every day... "Over past eight years we've lost one third of our staff and under this restructure there's more going to go" he told the Star "The head count is going down from 205 to 194...it was 430 eight years ago! Managers are firefighting, some of the work has gone out to a private company, and the Council is not filling its boots on business rates because it's not got enough inspectors."
The City Mayor, Paul Dennett, his Deputy Mayor, John Merry, and Cabinet members, Councillors Bill Hinds and John Ferguson, came out of the Workforce Panel meeting yesterday, listening stony faced as Salford UNISON reps Ameen Hadi and Steven North told them face-to-face of the issues...
"We've put up with this situation for years hoping there will be some relief from it and we could provide a better service for the people of Salford, instead of not answering their phone calls and having big backlogs that cause huge problems" said Ameen "We need a structure that provides a decent service to the people of Salford...We don't feel that we have been listened to throughout this process."
Steven North added: "A lot of people here work in collection of Council Tax and Business Rates, and when we look at next year's budget we know that there will be in the region of £16million of cuts. We want to make sure that the Council is doing everything it can to maximise revenue collection, one the worst collection rates in country.
"This is an opportunity today to address some of that and make sure this service is staffed properly so that, as well as staff being able to fulfil their role, they are bringing in revenue to the Council that makes it easier to pass a budget next year that doesn't have damaging cuts for the staff and people of Salford" he explained.
No formal decision was made at yesterday's meeting, while, in the background, UNISON is considering industrial action should the restructure go ahead.
See also previous Salford Star articles...
Scandal of £200million Appeals Against Salford Council Business Rates – click here
Salford Loses Over £7million is Business Rates Avoidance – click here