Could 'The Sunderland Way' prevent council job cuts?

Sunderland Wear Bridge
Image caption 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.

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".

Image caption 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."

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.