Ministers have ordered a Cambridgeshire council to end its “experiment” with a four-day working week.
South Cambridgeshire district council had announced plans to extend its trial until next April but ministers have ordered officials to end it now.
The Liberal Democrat-led council was the first local authority in the UK to undertake such a trial.
The local government minister, Lee Rowley, wrote to the council leader, Bridget Smith, to “ask that you end your experiment immediately” and said he had concerns about the “value for money” for local taxpayers.
There has been growing interest in a four-day week in the UK and globally, with some businesses praising the shift to a shorter working week.
But in a letter dated 30 June, Rowley said such a model was inappropriate for local authorities.
“As I am sure you are aware, all councils are expected to ensure that finite and valuable taxpayers’ money is used in a way which demonstrates value for money – something which paying employees for an extra day of work that is not carried out is unlikely to demonstrate,” he wrote.
“I strongly believe in the ability of councils to innovate and find new ways to discharge their responsibilities – yet removing up to 20% of the capacity to do those activities is not something which should be acceptable for a council seeking to demonstrate value for money for its taxpayers and residents.
“Whilst some private-sector organisations may choose to experiment with their own capital and capacity regarding ‘four-day working weeks’, local government should not do the same.”
He said such an approach could breach the council’s legal duties under the Local Government Act.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities would “shortly be issuing clear guidance” on the matter, Rowley added.
“I look forward to your confirmation that South Cambridgeshire will be returning to established norms around local government workforce capacity in the coming weeks ahead,” he said.
Smith said: “I was surprised to receive Mr Rowley’s letter and we have written to him to request a meeting with ministers to discuss this matter. This is a trial, but we have already seen strong independently assessed evidence which showed that performance was maintained, and in some cases improved, in the first three months.
“At the start of our trial we were carrying a £2m annual agency bill. During the first three months of the trial, we filled four permanent posts that had previously been impossible to fill. This has reduced our annual bill by £300,000. As time goes on it is becoming increasingly clear that recruitment has been positively affected, both in terms of the quality and number of applicants, and the consequent success in filling vacant posts.”
Jolyon Maugham, the director of the Good Law project, said: “This is bar-stool lawyering par excellence. If Lee Rowley really wants to improve the quality of work funded by the taxpayer, I’d suggest in the future he gets proper independent legal advice before he opines on the law.”
He added: “If a legal challenge is brought, and succeeds, I’ll eat my wig.”
Joe Ryle, the director of the 4-Day Week campaign group, said: “This move by the government flies in the face of all the evidence, which shows the four-day week has been a huge success at the council.
“The four-day week with no loss of pay is already beingrolled out across the private sector, so it’s only fair the public sector are included too. The irony is that this trial is already bringing many benefits to council workers, local residents and saving the council money.”
Smith recently told the BBC that the move to carry out the trial came after years of relying on agency staff to fill the gaps left by vacancies.
“On average, we only fill about 80% and we have some vacancies that we have been carrying for years, particularly in planning,” she told the broadcaster. “We had to do something. We have already managed to deliver a third of a million pounds in savings, largely because we’ve now filled some of those really difficult to fill roles within planning.”
South Cambridgeshire district council has been contacted for comment.
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