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Suffolk libraries new bosses need to deal with low staff morale

When the full board of the Industrial and Provident Society which is being set up to run Suffolk Libraries meets for the first time on Wednesday (Feb 15) it will need to start demonstrating its independence.

The three founding directors were appointed by the county council and a further eight have been chosen, if that it the right word, by the founding directors and the council.

There were meant to be five additional directors but it seems that the chairman, Clive Fox pressed for all eight nominees to be appointed. This neatly avoided the potential allegation that the entire board was made up of placemen and women.

One of the first tasks will be to start restoring morale among library staff who are understandably worried about their futures. Radical change in employment, transferring from one employer to another, is always unsettling.

But in this case there seems to have been no planning for internal communication by the county. Staff are complaining that whenever they ask a question they are told it is a “matter for the IPS”.

The whole schedule looks rushed with the objective of the IPS taking over at the beginning of the new financial year in April. The list of those providing evidence for the transfer plan included no one from communications or HR teams.

There is one thing they could do to demonstrate both the independence of the IPS and start lifting morale at the same time — abandon the nasty plan to employ new staff at lower salaries.

The evaluation report approved by the council includes in the justification of the IPS an assumption that the IPS will pay new staff 10 per cent less than existing staff. The historic rate of staff turnover is 4.8 percent, so the saving in the first year would be tiny. perhaps 0.25 per cent of the wage bill.

Refusing to implement that part of the plan would be an easy win for the IPS board and low cost way of starting to rebuild morale.

It would begin to allay fears among library staff (who are not highly paid) that they are going to be eased out to make way for cheaper people.

One of the threats to the IPS plan was recognised as: “Potential low morale, higher sickness absence and higher staff turnover as a result of significant organisational change.”

Alison Wheeler, the IPS general manager (appointed by the council) has made a strong attempt to reassure staff, in an email, offering to answer questions and listen to concerns. She even gave out her mobile number.

In part she said:

We will have to be ingenious, practical, pragmatic and creative to ensure that Suffolk’s library services survive.  I am relying on all of you to play your part in this endeavour, working with communities, with an open mind to new ways of working, supporting each other to generate the ideas and apply solutions to new situations.

It is true that the success of the venture will depend on the staff being enthusiastic, creative and flexible. But it was not really the right time to raise the possibility of failure, although it is a fear she probably shares with some senior people in Endeavour House.

Reassurance and big hugs for the staff are what are needed at the moment. I do hope the board will see morale as one of the urgent bits of business for its first meeting.


Suffolk county council: £300k tax avoidance

Suffolk County Council has embarked of a tax avoidance scheme which will cost central government revenues more than £300,000 a year.

The avoidance of business rates is at the heart of the plan to save money by handing libraries over to an Industrial Provident Society in April.

Last month the Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised a tougher approach to businesses and individuals avoiding tax by using fancy lawyers (BBC).

The report on which Suffolk County council based its decision to pass the running of libraries on to an independent IPS says it will cost less than a directly run service for two reasons: the 80% rebate on business rates for charities, and lower corporate overheads.

According to the report business rates in the current financial year are £381,750, which means that a little over £300,000 will be saved.

This is tax which is collected by district and borough councils on behalf of the government and goes into the pool from which local authorities get grants from Whitehall.

So while there is an advantage for Suffolk county council, the overall national effect is neutral.

But the system of distributing business rates is changing and the libraries report identified a risk in the Government’s plans to reform its distribution. It said:

A significant proportion of the identified savings would come from business rate relief due to the charitable status of the IPS. There is a risk that after 2013/14 these business rate savings will become cost neutral to local councils depending on the outcome of the Government review on local retention of business rates. The proposals on this review are currently not clear whether charitable rate relief would be reimbursed by Government to local authorities or not.

Just before Christmas the Communities Department announced more detailed plans for reforming business rates which have become one of the most centralised local tax systems in the world.

A press release said:

The reforms will establish a direct link between the effort that councils put into growing local economies, supporting jobs and infrastructure and the amount of money that they have to spend on local services and local people.

Council tax payers and business rate payers stand to benefit from additional income that rate retention could bring authorities, through better services and more investment.

Charity relief will remain.

At best the libraries scheme is taking money out of a national pocket and putting into a local one. But it remains a way of avoiding paying tax and the long-term effect on the county remains unclear.

The complex impact on shire counties of the current business rate reforms has been examined by Simon Parker, director of the New Local Government Network, for the Municipal Journal.

At last Network Rail bosses put lives before bonuses

It sounds like an admission that boardroom bonuses cost lives. Network Rail announced today that directors would forego this year’s bonus pool of £20 million and allocated the money to safety improvements at level crossings (Telegraph).

Everyone living in East Anglia, where there is a seemingly constant stream of accidents at crossings, knows that the campaign for safety improvements has been going on for years.

I trust none of the bonus money will be used to pay the fines of up to £1m expected after network rail admitted breaches of the Health and Safety Act for an incident in which two teenage girls died.

Basildon magistrates heard last week (Daily Mirror) that deficiencies in the way Network Rail had gone about risk assessment resulted in the deaths of Olivia Bazlinton (14) and Charlotte Thompson (13) at Elsingham in 2005. A risk assessment from four years before the deaths had been lost, the court heard.

A few days before the case was heard another teenage girl, Katie Littlewood (15) died at a level crossing at Bishop’s Stortford (BBC), less than six miles from Elsingham.

If the directors of Network Rail had put safety before bonuses earlier, Katie might still be alive.

Maybe, company directors are coming to realise the public revulsion at bonuses for simply doing their jobs.