South Cambridgeshire District Council will defy the government by continuing its trial of a four-day working week, following a vote at an extraordinary meeting on 20 November.
The meeting, in South Cambridgeshire Hall, Cambourne, was called to discuss the Best Value Notice that had been served on the council by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on 3 November. The Best Value Notice asked the council to supply 186 pieces of information within one month of receipt, and to continue answering a smaller number of questions once a week for six months.
Council agrees to engage
The meeting voted “…to agree that the Council engage with DLUHC to provide the data requested.” An amendment from the council’s Tory group, calling for a request that the DLUHC Best Value Notice be withdrawn on the proviso that the four-day week trial end before March 2024, was rejected by 24 votes to 8.
The four-day week experiment was approved at a council cabinet meeting on 12 September 2022, following a report recommending it by Liz Watts, the council chief executive. Council staff commented on it via a wellbeing survey by the firm Robertson Cooper. This was run on two occasions, respectively for August – September 2022 and March – April 2023. Employees rated the four-day week positively (74% rated 8/10 or above), and the majority said they would like the council to make the arrangement permanent.
Staff concerns were nevertheless amongst those raised by opponents of the experiment at the 20 November meeting. Tory group leader Cllr Heather Williams told the meeting that working conditions for some staff had worsened. Independent Cllr Dan Lentell passed on an anecdotal account of an NHS staff member furiously comparing her own 80% hours on 80% pay with the council workers’ four-day week on full pay.
What effect has the experiment had on service levels? 80% of households on the council’s patch have seen their bin collection days changed. Tory Cllr Sue Ellington told of a parish council’s attempts to meet the district council’s planning officer. He had offered them three dates, none suitable, and his reply had taken more than 48 hours to arrive.
LibDem Cllr John Williams said: “At a recent meeting of the Staffing and Employment Committee, we had a report on the effect of the four-day week on staff performance, recruitment and retention. Our staff turnover is down, our sickness is down and our recruitment has clearly benefited because our number of applicants for posts has gone up.”
Cut short by a change of government?
So the experiment continues, with the added chore of retrospective and weekly data to report. A similar experiment in the private sector had glowingly successful results: 61 companies took part, and 56 opted to retain the four-day week after the experiment ended. At the 20 November meeting, council leader Bridget Smith said she hoped the Best Value Notice would be cut short by a change of government before long.