More than 600 SBC staff express interest in quitting as axe hovers

IT IS critical, if Scottish Borders Council is to protect frontline services, that savings are made in its employee costs.

That was the message this week from leader Councillor David Parker as he revealed that no fewer than 611 members of staff had expressed an interest in voluntarily quitting their jobs.

The employees, representing more than 15 per cent of the local authority’s non-teaching workforce, have taken up the invitation, extended last month by chief executive David Hume. to say they are prepared to consider voluntary severance or, if applicable, early retirement.

What appears to be a huge response given the parlous state of the region’s employment market has not fazed Mr Parker whose council is facing a net revenue budget reduction of around £13million in the next financial year.

“It has to be stressed that this is not the actual number of staff who wish to leave the council,” he told us.

“Initially, employees have to express an interest in receiving a written offer and, once that offer is received, many people may not choose to take their application further.

“We will provide individual details to staff about what this scheme may mean for them personally and they will then determine whether they wish to make a formal application or take their interest no further.

“Once we have the formal applications, the lists of staff involved will go to departments for consideration.

“Formal recommendations about which applications should be supported will come forward to elected members for approval, but I don’t expect the whole process, which will include input from trade unions, to be concluded until March.”

He said departments would consider all applications against a range of criteria, including the ability to reorganise work among remaining staff, the impact on service quality and performance, the need to meet customer demand and forthcoming structural changes affecting service delivery.

“This type of scheme helps us make savings from our workforce and control the number of staff we employ,” said Mr Parker. “It also helps us support cultural changes.

“For instance, we are currently seeking to merge planning and technical services to form a new environment and infrastructure department. As part of this merger we are looking to save £1.7million over the next two years and reduce the number of staff in the new department.

“The voluntary severance and early retirement scheme will be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

“It is critical, if we are to protect frontline services, that the council makes savings in employee costs and if we can achieve that without the need for compulsory redundancies, that would be very welcome.”

TheSouthern understands many of those expressing an interest in severance packages are long-serving employees who would benefit most from the formula by which golden handshakes will be calculated.

Under the scheme, a 40-year-old with 20 years’ service would expect 29 times his or her weekly salary as severance, whereas a 22-year-old on £288 a week and four years’ service could pick up just £865.

The council has already agreed to shed around 70 full-time posts in a £6million package of cuts, but an extra £3million in savings will have to be found before the 2011/12 budget is set in February.

Today, the full council will be urged by Mr Parker to accept a 2.6 per cent cut of £6.2million in the settlement it will receive next year from the Scottish Government. It has been negotiated through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) and compares to an average cut in revenue budgets to all other non-protected public services of 6.4 per cent. There will also be a £1.15million cut in the council’s capital grant next year.

But the offer is conditional on SBC freezing Council Tax, maintaining police officer numbers by ensuring its current £10.25million contribution to Lothian and Borders Police is not cut by more than 2.6 per cent and ensuring funding for free personal and nursing care.

The protection of teacher numbers, albeit with increased use of probationers, and the maintenance of high teacher:pupil ratios in P1-3 are also conditions of the funding deal.

But ahead of today’s decision, the settlement from the Scottish Government was commended by the council’s SNP group leader Donald Moffat.

“In addition to a Council Tax freeze for the fourth consecutive year, business rates for small enterprises are to remain at zero with substantial reductions for many medium-sized companies,” said Councillor Moffat.