Council ‘can’t survive’ without agency staff

Newport City Council “can’t survive” without agency staff, a senior council officer has admitted.

Competition from the private sector and pay constraints, mean local authorities struggle to recruit and retain staff, council officers argue. This can lead to a reliance on agency staff.

In a performance scrutiny committee meeting, senior council officer Kevin Howells said £16.8 million was spent on agency staff last year.

At the meeting, Tracy McKim, head of people, policy and transformation, said: “We can’t survive without employing supply teachers and agencies. We can’t afford to pay additional resources [for staff] to sit around and be called-in when someone’s off.”

Ms McKim added: “There’s a balance to be struck and generally speaking those agency costs are mitigated by having a vacancy.”

A Freedom of Information request revealed the council spent £12.8 million on agency staff in 2021/22 and £8.9 million in 2020/21.

Strategic director at the council, Rhys Cornwall, defended the use of agency workers. He said: “It may be in schools, it may be in refuse collection, but we have got to have somebody there, that day, to do that job.”

The report stated the council is aiming to limit its use of agency workers, and that its approach to agency use is currently under review.

Mr Howells said part of the council’s recruitment problem is that people believe a “myth” that you have to know someone in the council to get a job there.

He added: “We will see the [recruitment] team more and more regularly getting out in to the city, going to job fairs, de-mystifying around Newport City Council and trying to attract applicants into the organisation. You don’t have to know someone to be an employee.”

Councillor Kate Thomas, who represents Stow Hill, said a package of benefits should be presented with a job opportunity.

The report states the council offers car purchase schemes, cycle-to-work schemes, a high street discount card, technology schemes, discounted leisure facilities, and the ability to purchase additional annual leave.

Home working is also advertised as a benefit of working for the council. Ms McKim said this also lets the local authority to reach a wider pool of applicants, as people won’t need to travel to the office everyday.

Retention is also a problem for the council. In 2022/23, 850 members of staff left the local authority, which equates to a turnover of 14.4%.

The high turnover is a result of employees seeking better paid positions elsewhere, according to the council’s report. Local authorities often have limited budgets, with pay being set nationally.

Mr Howells said an emerging trend of millennials – those born around 1981 to 1996 – not staying in jobs as long is also affecting the council’s retention.

According to the report, millennials tend to stay in jobs for an average of two years and eight months.

The report states that budget cuts in certain areas of the council takes a “toll” on staff morale and wellbeing because of increased pressure on them.

Cllr Saeed Adan, who represents Pillgwenlly, suggested more collaboration with other local authorities could help with recruitment and retention issues.


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