Another Kick In The Teeth For Stoke-on-Trent City Council Tenants

On the day that Stoke-on-Trent City Council release their updated budget book, with details of which services are going to be cut as part of the cost cutting measures, it appears that they have come up with a new revenue generation scheme. A scheme that will hit some of the cities poorest residents.

From 10 February Stoke-on-Trent City Council & Kier, their housing maintenance partner are going to start using a dedicated new number for tenants to report housing repairs.

The new 0844 number will be available 24 hours a day according to a leaflet handed to Pits n Pots by a council tenant this afternoon.

I have just had this leaflet pushed through my door, telling me that from next week I need to call a 0844 number if I want to report any repairs.

I get local calls for free on my home phone, but now I will have to pay for the call. Last time I rang I was hanging on the phone for over 20 minutes while I tried to report a problem with my bathroom. If I had to pay for the call how much would that call cost me?

This latest ‘tax’ on council tenants comes under the watchful eye of Vanguard the company brought in by John van de Laarschot to oversee the restructuring & improvements to the way the council work.

0844 numbers are classed as ‘non geographic’ meaning that the cost of calling the number is the same from anywhere in the UK. Pits n Pots can’t think of many reasons why anyone outside of the 01782 area code would need to call the repairs line apart from the odd instance when a family member may be calling on behalf of a council tenant.

According to a number of companies who provide 0844 numbers, people who use an 0844 number for business can enjoy revenues of up to 4p a minute depending on the number of calls.

Using the new 0844 number council tenants who use BT as their phone provider will be forced to pay a flat rate of 5p per minute on. So a call of 10 minutes will cost 50p

Virgin Media customers, on the other hand will be forced to pay a 12.24p connection fee and then 7.13p for each minute they are on the call, making a 10 minute call 84p

Council Tenants who rely on a mobile phone on Pay As You Go contracts can expect to pay upwards of 20p on O2 and 40p on Orange a minute.

Based on figures seen by Pits n Pots Stoke-on-Trent City Council contact centre get an estimated 60,000 calls each year for repairs. With an average call taking around 10 minutes which could generate an income of over £24,000pa for the council, an income funded by some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the city.

I checked with the Director about the number when I saw it printed on the leaflets and was assured that it is not a premium rate number but a local call number.

I was not told about any possible rake off of call charges coming back to the council as revenue, I’ll going to the Civic Centre later this afternoon and will be asking some questions about the number and the charges.

Brain also said, residents are able to use phones in any of our buildings and make calls to the contact centre including the new repairs line for free

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Redundancy Process In Turmoil

Stoke-on-Trent City Council appear to be in a state of utter disarray around the officer & staff redundancies.

In the supposed culture of openness and transparency that seems to be mentioned at every available opportunity something seems to be lacking.
According to page 31 of the reports pack for the Improving Communities O&S Committee that sat on 25 January, everyone is fully aware and supportive of the redundancies.

Trade Union representatives are broadly aware of this approach and supportive as it is designed to ensure all staff in NM and Housing Services are fairly considered for a reduced number of job opportunities.

In fact the union representatives are so aware of the approach that they felt the need to issue the following statement to the effected staff by E-mail
I have not seen the new proposals nor have I been briefed on the details. It is proposed that I will see the proposals on a Tuesday afternoon, the date is yet to be decided and the staff will see them on Wednesday.

So if everything is so open and transparent why is the union saying they have never seen the proposals?

Sources within the council have told Pits n Pots that since the redundancy process started they have heard nothing or seen very little in official documents.

The first round of consultations was for tiers down to 3 & 4. Whilst there was overall numbers in the documentation that came out on 1st November, the documentation for this showed the structure and which roles had been deleted within the HENS directorate, including those of staff who have still not been officially informed of their redundancy.

Whilst there was overall numbers in the documentation that came out on 1st November, there were no pooling or placements lists. When these did arrive they were full or errors and/or ommissions.

We were supposed to be having meetings last week but these were cancelled, we had been told that the meeting would be this week but there is a rumour going around that it will be next week at the earliest

Other sources have told Pits n Pots that they don’t believe the documents and staffing numbers were even finalised until well into the consultation period which is why the unions have been stating they didn’t deem the consultation period to have started until the lists were available.

Back in September Stoke-on-Trent City Council announced the shake up and reduction of directorates providing an implementation timetable

1 September – Proposals issued to affected staff and (Union/s) for consultation
15 September – Deadline job skills and competency templates to be received for Director and Assistant Director posts to be placed.
30 September – Formal consultation ends. Deadline for receiving jobs skills and competency templates back for Assistant Director posts
1 October – Subject to results of consultation, commence implementing proposals including placing staff formally at risk
31 December – Redundancies effective
4 January 2010 – New structure in place and operational

We are now at the end of January and the new structure is not in place nor is it operational. According to our sources it will be another 3 or 4 weeks at least before the issues causing the delay are resolved.

We are reliably informed that the delay is being caused by changes that were made to senior managers contracts during the time of the interim Chief Executive. These changes include clauses which allow for payments of around £20,000 per person for taking on extra responsibilities within the council. We are led to believe that these changes were not put in front of the elected members and have only come to light as part of the restructuring process.

You can view the discussion about this matter in the last full council meeting here.

I think there are some things we need to be absolutely clear about, last year I as a leader made a statement that I would not accept pay rises to senior managers on tier 1 and tier 2, which is the discussion that’s in this report given the economic circumstances that this council faces.

HR Committee have discussed this, jobs have been re-evaluated because previously there was no job evaluation, it was basically erm unevaluated jobs randomly applied and a wholly unfair system.

For the first time we have been able to evaluate all the jobs and despite that the HR committee did not accept any pay rises for any of those senior officers”¦..

There has been a lot said about looking at the past and all the negatives within the council and how it should stop and how the city should look forward to the future. Unfortunately until each and very closet is opened up and every skeleton is out in public view it is impossible for the city to look forward, each time we look forward and feel that we are moving on something else from the murky past of Stoke-on-Trent City Council appears and sweeps the legs from under us.

BBC 4 Documentary Being Filmed At Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Independent television production company Blast! Films are filming a documentary series for BBC4 about Stoke-on-Trent City Council and how it deals with deals with the economic and social changes facing Britain’s local authorities.

The Cabinet & Chief Executive, who is not one to shrink in to the shadows when it comes to self promotion and publicity, have agreed to the filming which will take place over the next 18 months and will hopefully result in 3 or 4 one hour long documentaries.

The filming will cover how the council deals with the biggest economic cuts since the second world war. The documentary team will also be filming around the May elections which will be the first all out elections with the new ward boundaries.

Pits n Pots have been told that filming will start today (Thursday 9 December) on the build up the the Full Council meeting this afternoon. As far as we are aware the staff at the Civic Centre have not yet been informed that a camera crew will be filming in the building or attending meetings.

In documents seen by Pits n pots the council cabinet ask and answer the following question

Why we are doing it?

This is a unique moment in local government. Unprecedented budget cuts mean a fundamental rethink of our services. This documentary will show how a formerly lackluster local authority, facing exceptional levels of deprivation, is turning the corner with a dynamic, joined ““up cabinet led by a strong leader working with a new chief executive.

As Blast! Films say this is capturing a slice of modern history as it unfolds.

Vanguard ““ Simply Misunderstood?

I’ve blogged before about the problems of stepping into someone else’s shoes as a new councillor ““ and it’s not just on local issues that you notice this. The subject of Vanguard, the consultancy firm brought into Stoke-on-Trent City Council by our Chief Exec John van der Laarschott, seems to me at times to be just another of those things where the new councillors missed the “Ëœbig discussion’ and are now frantically trying to work out what it is we’ve missed.

Or have we?

Vanguard have been working with Kier, the Council’s housing maintenance contractors, initially, and as a member of the Improving Communities Scrutiny Committee, I have seen several reports on what is happening, and have also taken up the opportunity to visit the Kier office in Cromer Road and talk to staff. Having done this and spoken to other councillors and officers, it seems to me that really the problem is that a lot of people, not just new councillors, don’t “Ëœget’ what Vanguard are all about.

The simple illustration that Vanguard are a consultants and will bring savings, doesn’t really do justice to what is actually happening. Let me make it clear that this blog isn’t intended to be a banner-waving exercise for Vanguard, but simply my view of what they are doing in our Council. It’s also my take on what I see happening now, because don’t forget, I’ve only been a councillor since May!

The housing stock in the City is split into 3 sections, similar to the parliamentary constituencies ““ North, South and Central, with teams of workers for each area, all based in Cromer Road, Northwood (which is in Central). The Vanguard approach is to look at the processes in place and refocus them on the customer, which means cutting out many of the steps that really doesn’t benefit or interest them.

Speaking to the staff at Kier, both those in a managerial position and also spending time with a Kier tradesman, really showed me this in practice, and that the change in working style for responsive repairs (which is currently only in place in the Central area) really brought this home to me. We visited tenants in the South of the City who told me umpteen visits before an issue was sorted was the norm, whereas tenants in Central got it done first time, at a time that suited them. Having seen the statistics on housing repairs, I know what I saw wasn’t put on ““ responsive repairs in Central really are better.

So how does that stack up with saving money? I guess you could say it is the unintended consequence of improving the service to customers. In the “Ëœold’ system, a supervisor went out first to gauge a repair, followed by a trademan, when he was free. If the job needed parts, he would go off to get them. If they weren’t easily available, he could be gone all day, and rebook to come back another time, when the part was available. In the “Ëœnew’ system, a tradesman goes out at a time convenient to the tenant, with a van fully stocked with items. If he needs a part, it is delivered to him so the job gets done faster. Under the “Ëœold’ system, a week to 3 months for a job to be finished (start to finish) was the norm. Under the “Ëœnew’ system, it is often done in a couple of days maximum. Cutting out the unneeded steps will hopefully lead to a position where responsive repairs are literally that ““ responsive. Some of the tenants I met in South told me they just don’t bother reporting minor things as it isn’t worth the hassle of waiting for weeks for a repair, so these minor repairs eventually turn into bigger jobs, and are no longer really responsive.

I have chatted through the Vanguard approach with friends and colleagues outside the Council, and really it is the good application of private business practices, something that has been long missing in local government, however delivered in what I perceive to be a “Ëœstate of mind’ approach rather than a prescriptive way. One colleague asked me, “If it’s so obvious, why haven’t we done it before?”, and I did wonder about this. The explanation however seems to be that what Vanguard do is so different and back-to-basics that it is actually ripping up what we did before and starting from scratch, thinking the unthinkable, which even in cutting edge private industry is knife-edge stuff.

So am I any clearer about Vanguard? Yes, and also the potential Vanguard can bring to the rest of the Council. There is massive potential to change the way the Council works for the better, and I do have confidence that the Vanguard approach can help change this, but really elected members need to understand why we need these changes and what is behind them.

Stoke ‘On’ Call Centre – The Facts!

At a recent Improving Communities Scrutiny Committee, councillors questioned the progress of the intervention of the consultants Vanguard into our Council House Repairs Service, delivered by Kier.

Our officers proclaim the great success so far of the pilot scheme with little concrete evidence to show for their efforts.

I have every reason to believe that the work being done will eventually lead to improvements in the services as well as better value for money.

However, the current “pilot” scheme evidence shows a devastating collapse of some services such as the call centre, and the rapid exhaustion of annual budgets within 6 months. To me this is a gross mismanagement of the transition arrangements, where current services levels should, at the very least, be maintained.

I think even I could claim an improvement of a services for the first six months if I spent 12 months worth of funding in just 6 months!

Take our call centre for an example ““ the number was unobtainable again on Monday 20 September 2010 (is this how you reduce the number of unanswered calls in the system).

“Cllr Barnes, there is nobody here to take the calls”

All this after the councillors almost unanimously called for urgent action to be taken to restore this important front line service ““ apparently ignored.

The latest figures released speak for themselves:

The combined contact centre performance figures:
Total Number of Calls Offered 16,676

Total Number of Calls Connected to an advisor 11,813

Percentage of Calls Answered 70.8%

Average wait to be connected to an advisor 151 Seconds

Percentage of Calls answered within 20 seconds 30.21%

Contact Centre Performance per main service area:

To provide more detailed information on how the contact centre is performing, please see below performance information for the main service area’s delivered within the contact centre:-

Total Number of Calls Offered 4,884

Total Number of Calls Connected to an advisor 3,226

Percentage of Calls Answered 66.1%

Average wait to be connected to an advisor 283 seconds

Percentage of Calls answered within 20 seconds 27.15%

Total Number of Calls Offered 3,584

Total Number of Calls Connected to an advisor 1,548

Percentage of Calls Answered 43.2%

Average wait to be connected to an advisor 974 seconds

Percentage of Calls answered within 20 seconds 11.61%

Total Number of Calls Offered 4,003

Total Number of Calls Connected to an advisor 3,351

Percentage of Calls Answered 83.7%

Average wait to be connected to an advisor 108 seconds

Percentage of Calls answered within 20 seconds 41.47%

Total Number of Calls Offered 1,684

Total Number of Calls Connected to an advisor 1,538

Percentage of Calls Answered 91.3%

Average wait to be connected to an advisor 130 seconds

Percentage of Calls answered within 20 seconds 37.59%

Total Number of Calls Offered 1,580

Total Number of Calls Connected to an advisor 1,383

Percentage of Calls Answered 87.5%

Average wait to be connected to an advisor 171 seconds

Percentage of Calls answered within 20 seconds 28.80%

Total Number of Calls Offered 941

Total Number of Calls Connected to an advisor 767

Percentage of Calls Answered 81.5%

Average wait to be connected to an advisor 89 seconds

Percentage of Calls answered within 20 seconds 58.24%

The most significant figures in this list are the housing repairs stats.

“Percentage of calls answered 43.2%” – Less than 1 in every 2 calls is answered let alone resolved.

“Average wait to be connected” for the lucky one who did get an answer ““ “974 seconds” ““ that’s nearly 16 and a half minutes!

So this is what our council promotes as improvements ““ god help us if we came across their version of failure!

Our Chief Executive Laarschott, defended the call centre problems by saying that things were so successful that the number of calls had gone up. Really? Well guess what John ““
I asked for all of the weekly figures for the last 6 months and what a surprise I got.

What these figures actually show is that six months ago we were receiving 3000 calls a week more than we do now (19000) and our performance was considerably better with this higher call level! (80%)

So lets cut all the bullshit and get real and start to work together to acknowledge the problems and resolve them instead of trying to conceal them with spin and grandiose claims.

I certainly am not happy with the level of service from our contact centre, and if it doesn’t improve very very soon, I will be asking my colleagues in Community Voice, to call an emergency council meeting to get to the bottom of this matter once and for all.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Reduce The Number of Directorates

Top officers in Stoke-on-Trent City Council will be the first casualties in the Authorities bid to save £30million.

14 of its 37 directors and heads of department are to be axed as a part of a major rationalisation programme enabling a saving of some £1million.

The number of Directorates will be cut form 6 down to 4 and they will encompass regeneration, children and young people’s services, business services and adult and neighbourhood services.

Cabinet members and councillors were briefed by Chief Executive John van de Laarschot. Council staff were informed by email.

Mr van de Laarschot had publicly stated in a number of meetings, in particular Overview & Scrutiny, that he thought that the authority was top heavy and that he believed the Vanguard ‘Lean System Thinking’ method would help the business to become more customer focused and would help to remove the layers of bureaucracy within the authority.

This latest reorganisation demonstrates the council’s commitment to protecting front line services by removing top wage earners from the business.

In recent months we have witnessed several high earners leave the employment of Stoke-on-Trent City Council including NSRP Managing Director Tom Macartney and its Development Director Darren Jones. Jeanette McGarry the Director of Housing, Environment and Neighbourhood Services was removed from her £130,000 a year post.

The authority has also been without an Assistant Chief Executive since late last year.