Could 'The Sunderland Way' prevent council job cuts?

Sunderland Wear Bridge Sunderland's council has made nobody redundant despite needing to save almost £40m

As soon as the government announced its cuts programme, councils made it clear they would have to make job cuts.

The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles insisted they could save money by cutting waste, and leaving posts unfilled instead of throwing people on the dole.

So who was right? And how many jobs have really gone?

Now we know thanks to some research for the Politics Show.

Job losses

In the North East and Cumbria councils have told us they have shed 3,353 jobs in the last 12 months.

But actually the vast majority of those were voluntary and not compulsory redundancies.

Start Quote

I feel that there's enough churn in the system, enough people who are leaving the council to make this work”

End Quote Cllr Paul Watson Leader, Sunderland Council

At least 573 of the redundancies were compulsory, but at least 2,598 were voluntary. (The discrepancy with the overall figure comes because some councils refused to release a breakdown of which redundancies were compulsory).

You can see a full list broken down by local authority here.

Difficult as those job losses were for individuals, it's surprising perhaps that the compulsory figures weren't higher.

There are though still more cuts, and more job losses to come.

But one council in the survey stands out from the rest.

Sunderland Council has made nobody redundant, even though it has had to save almost £40m.

Temporary work

It says that's because it's taken a different approach - something it's calling "The Sunderland Way".

If a job is selected for redundancy, the individual is automatically put into something called "the switch team".

Eric Pickles Eric Pickles said councils could save money without making wholesale redundancies

They will continue to be paid their existing salary and temporary work will be found for them until a suitable permanent position comes up.

It might well be in a completely different section of the authority, but the individual's salary will be protected for the first year they are in the new post.

This is not a cost free process though. Sunderland Council has had to set aside £8m to meet the wage costs of staff waiting for another opportunity.

And a firm of accountants has been paid to design the system.

Intelligent approach

But the council's leaders and the unions are pleased with the results.

And some staff are too. Simon Brannen worked in the finance department, but to keep in a job, he has now switched to managing the council canteen.

He said: "I needed to live my life as normally as possible, meet the mortgage and frankly put food on the table. To come out from behind a desk has involved a lot of being on my feet and talking to customers about what they want."

Start Quote

We are not seeing other councils up and down the country come to Sunderland saying how are you doing it, and can we copy it”

End Quote Cllr Robert Oliver Conservative group leader, Sunderland Council

The Labour council leader, Cllr Paul Watson, believes it is a humane and intelligent approach, protecting staff and avoiding big redundancy costs.

He said: "I feel that there's enough churn in the system, enough people who are leaving the council to make this work. We believe we can also still meet our savings targets this way."

But the opposition Conservatives are not so sure the approach can work long term.

Cllr Robert Oliver, the group leader, said: "We are not seeing other councils up and down the country come to Sunderland saying how are you doing it, and can we copy it.

"The worry for the workforce is whether the adjustments in public spending will be made in a sustainable way, and the level of jobs at the council will be adjusted in a way that will last, and not store up problems for the future."

Challenges ahead

Paul Watson rejects that criticism, and he says there still has been pain. More than 600 posts have had to be left vacant, while others have been lost through early retirement.

There are also of course further challenges ahead as more savings still have to be delivered.

But what does "The Sunderland Way" really mean?

Is it evidence of a Labour council doing all it can in trying circumstances to look after its workforce and sustain services in the community?

Or is it proof that Eric Pickles was right? Can councils really adjust to the biggest cuts for a generation, and avoid making wholesale redundancies?

The Politics Show will be debating exactly that at 11am on Sunday 10 July.

Councils in the North East and Cumbria have cut more than 3,000 jobs in the last year, but Sunderland Council has avoided redundancies by following what it calls "The Sunderland Way".

Richard Moss Article written by Richard Moss Richard Moss Political editor, North East & Cumbria

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  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @ 3 - the reason why we are a faveorite of Labour AND Tory Governments is because we're so so much cheaper than anywhere in the UK for these services - if you want value for money then there would be no non-customer facing public sector jobs in the South East or London as why should you pay a London top-up for a person working on a phone...

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I'd like haveagojoe to list any redundancies that he/she thinks have been made. Short, fixed term or temp contracts usually sit outside the definition of redundancy, unless the contract states that these folks have redundancy payment rights and their contracts are terminated early. I would venture to say that working in the other LAs might be more disillusioning at present.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    A further thought. I got the impression that the Labour MP strongly supported the other authorities by offering "official" approval that redundancies are acceptable. Missing the whole issues of - the cost of redundancies, how essential jobs need to be recruited after redundancy of the post holder, and the impact on the benefit system of the 3000+ (& growing) newly unemployed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Having viewed the program it seems that the leader of the opposition in Sunderland council and the Conservative MP in discussion are at odds with each other. As the approach matches exactly the comments from Eric Pickles, It seems to me that the Conservatives in the council should be 100% behind this radical way of saving people's livelyhoods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Don't be fooled that there will be no redundancies. There already has been. Many short or fixed term contract posts have already been axed with most of them not eligible for the 'switch team'. Those who remain may find a role in the new set-up but then again many will not. I suggest the BBC interviews one of the many staff that are wholly disillusioned by what is going on at the Council right now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    So once again we get private sector workers grumbling about Public sector workers jobs being saved.

    We need public sector workers. Why?

    State schools are free, hopsitals are free, Road sweepers are free, Binmen are free, we pay a fraction of the cost in council tax that it is to really run these services.

    You really are clueless if you think you can survive without public sector workers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The north east has always been a favourite of Labour Governments and well looked after in terms of Public Sector job "creation" so avoiding redundancies in the council by spending money we cannot afford is no real surprise
    Unfortunatly the private sector lives in the real world and cannot afford this scheme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Suffolk CC decapitated the organisation when the Chief Exec left. Only problem was she left with a full years salary, when her contract was for 3 months salary in lieu of notice. The £200k+ would have covered the cost of the Lollipop people that she cut ..

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Any novel approach has to be welcomed, as long as it does save the required money, over time.
    Shropshire CC are trying to implement an across the board 5.4% salary cut on a 'shared pain' approach. The Unions are resisting, so it may well end up in mass redundancies.



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