Communities secretary Eric Pickles produced a guide listing 50 money-saving ideas for councils in the wake of more funding cuts. Political reporter David Wiles asked Swindon Council to respond to each of his suggestions and found many have been taken on board.
COUNCIL leader Rod Bluh says Swindon Council has already implemented many of the suggested savings and is going further to redesign services to meet increased demand.
“Swindon has been making such changes to cut costs and reduce waste since 2003.
“There are only a few ideas from this document that we have not carried out or are actively considering, such as using open source computer software,” he said.
“We have made savings, both large and small, amounting to over £270 in the last five years and we are looking to achieve more, although the scope is obviously much reduced.
“However, simply asking for savings totally ignores the demand-led pressures the council is facing, which are the consequence of an increasing and ageing population and a rise in the number vulnerable children, for which the council is receiving no additional support. It is because we face more challenges, which include finding a further £15m savings each and every year, that we have started the Big Conversation to explore with residents what changes we need to make to local government in the future to continue to balance the books.
“In particular, we need to debate what outcomes we need, and who should deliver them – whether that is charities, not for profit companies, the private sector or the state.”
But Labour group leader,Coun Jim Grant said: “It is patently clear that this Conservative administration doesn’t deliver good enough value to the Swindon council taxpayer. With regards to senior management, yes they did cut this by £1.2m last year but they also made £14m worth of cuts elsewhere. Labour would be looking to go further with regards to cuts to senior management.
“The Conservatives have also done nothing to cut back on the consultants budget and are spending nearly £2m of our money each year on this and they voted down Labour’s motion more than a year ago to cut back on mileage allowances paid to council staff.”
1. Share back office services within departments We entered into a 15-year strategic partnership with Capita in 2006 to provide the majority of our back office services, which has delivered significant savings (at least £18m over the life of the contract). Several of our services are now delivered from shared service centres operated by Capita both locally and further afield.
2. Community Budgets – Bring staff and money together The council is actively involved in the discussions on community budgets, and looks forward to working with Government on the future plans for extending this initiative. We have pioneered work that has directly informed the development of the community budgets approach including the Life project, which has been commended by the Prime Minister, along with health integration and Local Area Agreements which led to our One Swindon partnership.
3. Use transparency to cut waste We publish all information in line with government guidelines.
4. Tackle duplicate payments The Council has engaged with a number of different firms over the years to recover any duplicate payments found on its financial systems and no significant sums were identified. Where any small duplicate entries were found, the sums were recovered from the supplier.
5. Clamp down on corporate charge cards We have reduced the number of corporate cards and there are strict controls and criteria in place for using them.
6. Special spending controls for approving how spending is signed off There is close monitoring of all spending through online systems and there is a robust procurement process in place with appropriate limits set for approval, including Cabinet member sign off and scrutiny at the necessary levels.
7. Tackle fraud In addition to investigating and prosecuting Benefit Fraud (see below) the Council has proactively investigated and removed many falsely claimed Council Tax discounts. Data matching exercises using credit reference agency and Electoral Registration data in the last 4 years has identified nearly £0.5m additional Council Tax revenue. Full reviews of all discounts and exemptions are undertaken regularly.
8. Claw back money from benefit cheats We work hard to make sure that people do not take advantage of the benefit system and take appropriate action when necessary. In the last two years, over £300,000 worth of Benefit Overpayments has been uncovered by the Benefits Fraud Team and our rate of recovering Overpayments is increasing. A number of joint prosecutions with the Department of Work and Pensions have been undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service.
9. Get more for less by improving procurement During the last few years the Council has benefited from significant procurement savings, especially in relation to the cost of social care and insurance. The 2013-14 Draft Budget proposals include £0.75m of procurement savings.
10. Buy together Significant savings have been achieved in this area in recent years; e.g. Stationery spend has been reduced by consolidation & reduction of items permissible for purchase; the Capita contract has enabled better control and buying in IT. Both SCS and Seqol buy services from the Council (HR, IT, Payroll etc).
11. Stop the scope for procurement fraud We have robust contract standing orders in place for all spend and a gateway process in place for any spend over £0.5m with sign off by the Monitoring & Section 151 officers and Head of Commercial Services (responsible for Procurement).
12. Utilise £16 billion of reserves creatively We maintain the minimum level of reserves as advised by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), which currently stand at £6m.
13. Improve council tax collection rates Swindon Borough Council is in the top quartile for council tax collection performance for all unitary authorities. In 2011/12 we collected 97.8 per cent of Council Tax within the financial year and we go on to collect nearly 99 per cent of Council Tax that falls due. Our arrears collection has continued to improve.
14. Encourage direct debit and e-billing for council tax We already provide and encourage these services. Over 60 per cent of all Council Tax payers pay by Direct Debit and last year we issued electronic bills to 2,200 customers. We also send text reminders to customers prior to sending paper reminders.
15. Close council cash offices We have done this. It a has increased the number of direct debit users.
16. Better land and property management We have an elected member-led asset management group which constantly reviews our assets, and we have track record of effectively disposing of surplus assets to fund essential infrastructure projects such as schools and the Central Library.
17. Hot desking, estate rationalisation and sub-letting Our New Ways of Working initiative over the last three years has enabled us to accommodate the majority of our staff on the Civic Campus in a modern office environment that is based on flexible working and hot desking. This has enabled us to move out of Premier House (£1m a year saving) and Sanford House.
18. Open a ‘pop up shop’ in spare office space Where we have available space in the town centre we have done this, for example by allowing the Canal Trust and the Computing Museum to have empty shop space.
19. Close subsidised council canteens We do not subsidise council canteen food.
20. Cancel away days in posh hotels and glitzy ceremonies We always use our own assets such as Steam or community centres for away days or staff conferences. We do not pay to attend ‘glitzy’ ceremonies as a matter of course, but are on occasion invited. It is however right that staff that are being recognised for exceptional work are supported to attend events to an appropriate level.
21. Open a coffee shop in the library We have done this at the newly-built Central Library, and have also put a library in the Arts Centre. In other older buildings the cost of conversion means that the benefits are far from clear.
22. Cut senior pay The council has reduced senior management costs by £1.2m in the last year. Senior managers have not had a pay increase and have not taken up their contractual right to performance related pay since 2008, equating to a 10 – 15 per cent pay cut. The Chief Executive took a voluntary reduction in salary of 7 per cent in September 2010 and a further 3 per cent in April 2012.
23. Share senior staff We were at the forefront of shared appointments working as long ago as 2006 with joint appointments for adult social care with the PCT.
24. Scrap the chief executive post entirely It is the administration’s position that the role of Chief Executive remains crucial in terms of leading transformation and responding to the huge challenges that Swindon Borough Council, like all local authorities, face.
25. Introduce a recruitment freeze We have a recruitment freeze in place and only critical jobs, agreed as such by Corporate Board, are being filled.
26. Freeze councillor allowances and end councillor pensions We have frozen allowances for the last three years. In relation to pensions, we have always complied with the law and will continue to do so.
27. Cut spending on consultants and agency staff We have a single supplier arrangement for agency staff and our use of consultants is heavily scrutinised. They are only used where a clear value for money case had been made.
28. End expensive ‘leadership’ courses We have minimal spend on leadership development, although believe that some spend is justifiable on the basis that strong and effective leadership is critical in driving the change we require. All organisational/professional development is only approved if directly links to the council’s transformation agenda.
29. Cut spending on head hunters and expensive adverts All job adverts go on-line and only very exceptionally to we advertise in other publications. Our central costs on recruitment advertising have reduced by more than 95 per cent in the last 8 years.
30. Review and reduce staff absenteeism Sick absence figures are reducing - 2010/11 10.24 days per fte (full time equivalent); 2011/12 8.52 days per fte; 2012/13 projected end of year figures 7.8 days per fte 31. Scrap trade union posts We are in the process of reducing our central funding for whole time Unison posts from 1.5 fte pa to 0.5 fte pa (£14,500) 32. Charge for collecting trade union subscriptions We do this.
33. Stop spending money on commercial lobbyists We don’t spend money on commercial lobbyists.
34. Translation We only translate documents on request.
35. Reduce the number of publications and media monitoring We have reduced spend on all publications by restricting spend to professional relevant journals only, one per department. We do not do pay for media monitoring and never have done.
36. Earn more from private advertising For the last three years we have been using our assets such as roundabouts, lampposts and the sides of recycling lorries to earn income from private advertising and have and £150k annual target in relation to this.
37. Cease funding ‘sock puppets and ‘fake charities’ We don’t do this.
38. Scrap the town hall Pravda We have never published a ‘town hall Pravda’. We have published a residents’ magazine, Swindon News, as we feel it is important to communicate directly with local people. It has not been published since June 2012 and it is currently on hold pending a decision about where best to focus our limited resources for next year.
39. Stop providing free food and drink for meetings Internal meetings between council staff are not supplied with any food or drinks. Meetings involving external guests may be supplied with hot drinks and biscuits, and may, if lengthy and stretch over the lunchtime period, be supplied with light buffet food. If a meeting or event takes place at an external location (Steam museum or a council-owned community facility) and is over the course of an entire day, then a light buffet lunch may be provided.
40. Reduce first class travel We do not use first class travel.
41. Cut mileage payments We do not currently pay at the HRMC approved rate, but will review this.
42. Video conference We consistently use telephone conferencing, and we have the facility to use video conferencing when appropriate to do so.
43. Help the voluntary sector save you money We do this.
44. Cut printing costs We have cuts costs by disabling colour printing from council printers and reducing the number of printers.
45. End of lifestyle and equality questionnaires We only do this when absolutely necessary. Sometimes it is essential to have information about service users in order to target services to them more effectively.
46. Sell services We do this. For example, we created the arms length company Swindon Commercial Services, and were instrumental in creating the social enterprise SEQOL which provides a whole range of care and support services.
47. Hire out the town hall We hire out the Civic Offices and the former Town Hall.
48. Lease works of art not on display We are not aware of any meaningful opportunities that exist to lease works of art for a fee.
49. Save money on computer software We actively explore all software options, and have a strategic partnership with Capita for all IT services which has already driven out significant savings.
50. And finally… ask your staff for more sensible savings ideas: We consistently engage and involve staff in all aspects of how the organisation works and invite all contributions for news ways of working that drive out efficiencies and add value for local people.