Pressure on council leaders to tackle rising agency staff costs

It has been a turbulent last five years for the leaders of Yorkshire's cash-strapped local authorities as they adjust to the austerity imposed upon them by successive Government budget cuts.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

Across the region, council leaders have had to make unpalatable decisions about how to use their increasingly thinly-stretched resources while protecting all-important frontline services.

And as figures obtained by The Yorkshire Post show, the need to cover staff shortages has forced a number of town halls into employing expensive agency staff - ultimately meaning even greater costs to the tax-payer.

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Campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance has criticised council planning over the figures.

Chief executive John O’Connell said: “Of course there will be times when the local authorities will need short-term cover or temporary assistance but all spending has to represent value for money.

“This is a huge amount to be shelling out each year and those at the top need to work hard to bring this bill down so they can make sure that as much money as possible is going towards essential front-line services.”

The majority of local authorities that provided detail about their budgets spent more than they had originally estimated.

Doncaster Borough Council overspent by £1.25 million while Hambleton went 138 times over budget.

Earlier this year The Yorkshire Post reported that sick leave costs Hull Council £2.5 million a month.

At the time council cabinet member Phil Webster claimed managers were failing to get a grip on the situation.

“Managers have failed to manage. There’s anecdotal evidence of people rotaring in sickness thinking ‘I’m going to have some time off sick or I’ve had no time sick off this year.’ It’s not acceptable, it’s taxpayers money.”

But others have argued that councils are in fact helpless to prevent over-spending following the Government cuts to public services.

Steve Torrance, regional manager of Yorkshire and Humberside at Unison said: “This goes far beyond poor council planning.

“Councils are just being forced into temporary situations without the resources to deal with them.

“These figures come as no surprise given the level of Government cuts to councils.

“In the current situation staff are leaving councils or being forced to leave through redundancy and so vital services become understaffed.” Barnsley Borough Council spent £4.75 million on temporary staff in the year 2015/16 – a 143 per cent increase since 2011/12.

A spokesman for the local authority said the rise was the result of the “turbulent financial period over the past five years”.

He added: “As such, there has been an additional need to cover staff shortages on a short term basis as a means of managing our ongoing service continuity.”

Kirklees council said that although spending last year was £1.5 million more than four years ago, it had fallen by six per cent since 2014/15.

A spokesman said: “Agency staff have been used in many cases as we have restructured 
services, to cover fixed term gaps.

“The spend on agency staff is reducing, and while the amount spent has been more than in budgets, there has been a corresponding saving in permanent staffing which more than compensates for this”

City of York Council’s expenditure to external agencies has remained fairly constant over the past five years.

Leeds City Council saw a drastic drop in its spending. Its costs were reduced from £19.9 million in 2011/12 to £9.8 million - a fall of 51 per cent.