Volunteer help can save Falkirk Council £1.6m – but is it a step to a ‘DIY council?’

Relying on volunteers to do some local authority jobs has sparked a row at Falkirk Council as Labour slammed it as a step towards a”do-it-yourself council.”

By Kirsty Paterson, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 12:03 pm

Community groups could be asked to tend to shrub beds while the council’s own roads, ground and street cleansing staff would be expected to take on more tasks.

The SNP administration said the changes being introduced will make the service more modern and efficient – and a report to Falkirk Council’s executive yesterday suggested they will help the council save £1.6 million.

Members heard the changes included new terms and conditions for members of three teams: roads, grounds and street cleansing, by 2024.

Community groups could be asked to tend to shrub beds while the council’s own roads, ground and street cleansing staff would be expected to take on more tasks.

They want staff to be able to work across all three areas as part of a “flexible and multi-skilled” workforce.

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Talks are ongoing with trade unions – but with very different pay grades and shift patterns it’s not straightforward and the report admits that ‘low morale is an issue’.

The acting director of development, Douglas Duff, said they were realistic about the challenges ahead but that they were having “frank but constructive discussions with trade unions”.

Councillor Robert Bissett.

The report also admits that the changes will mean fewer jobs in the future – but both the SNP and Labour groups said they would not back any compulsory redundancies.

However, the Labour group was unhappy at the prospect of community groups being asked to do even more of the council’s traditional work – including a suggestion that volunteers might look after some of the area’s shrub beds.

The Labour group leader Robert Bissett said: “This proposal is yet more cuts and job losses as a result of Scottish Government cuts.

“These have been happening for far too long and we’re asking communities to fill the gap in services created by these cuts.

“This just cannot continue – we’re moving closer to a ‘do-it-yourself’ council, because of a political choice, not an economic necessity.

“What happens when you see volunteer fatigue and groups closing down?

“And that will eventually happen, even with support.”

SNP councillor Paul Garner said that in his experience community groups were happy to help out.

He highlighted that more than 100 people had signed up to help with tree planting this week.

The changes being made are part of the Council of the Future programme, which seeks to save money by modernising services.

Conservative councillor Lynn Munro said the report was providing exactly the sort of solutions they were looking for, rather than the usual “salami slicing” when setting the annual budget.

Over the next five years, the roads and grounds services are expected to find £3.5 million of savings – nearly a quarter of their budget – to help the council save a total of £76 million.

The council’s chief executive, Kenneth Lawrie, told members that it was important to address the challenges through transformation, rather than through service cuts.

He said: “The challenges we have aren’t simply financial – we need to change the way the council operates to improve the way we provide services to communities, to modernise and to take on board commercial and digital challenges.”

The changes agreed will also mean the council taking on more commercial work and looking for opportunities to generate income.