OPINION

It’s time for the council to return to work

Posted On 10 Nov 2021 at 12:01 am

While much of the country is back to work, Brighton and Hove City Council continues to lag behind, with almost all its office staff still working from home.

Hove Town Hall, which used to be the bustling heart of council activity for councillors and also point of service delivery for residents, is still for the most part a ghost town. Entire floors which used to be filled with staff busily working away, sit empty.

At the council offices at Bartholomew House in Brighton and Lavender Street in Kemp Town, where residents also used to be able to access face-to-face council services, the doors are closed.

Residents have now been unable to access face-to-face services, such as in parking, housing and planning, for 18 months. While remote working was understandable during the early months and lockdowns of the pandemic, residents of the city – who are back to work themselves – are beginning to become frustrated with the council’s continued working from home policy, which contradicts the national advice.

In its approach Brighton and Hove City Council stands increasingly on its own in compared to other councils and government service departments that returned to operating normally when restrictions were lifted by the government during the summer.

Remote systems are failing

If the council were delivering its services to residents at the same standard as before the pandemic hit then its approach might be justified. However, this is clearly not the case.

As has been reported in Brighton and Hove News, service delivery is worse than ever before, with a number of the council’s online remote systems that were put in place as alternatives to face-to-face services failing.

In recent months, thousands of residents have been unable to renew their parking permits, with the council’s remote online system failing.

Residents who paid for parking permits and have not received them have been faced with a phone that rings out when calling to get the matter resolved.

The council has had to treble its “remote” staff to try to get on top of this issue, at a significant cost to the taxpayer.

There have been similar problems with the allotments service, with hundreds of allotments sitting vacant, with the council’s new remote online system failing.

In the housing department, the backlog for repairs continues to rise every month and is now above 7,000, as council tenants struggle to arrange basic maintenance with the newly insourced service failing.

And after the council issued 900 cards for emergency support for carers in the city, one carer – who had tripped outdoors on an exposed concrete post and suffered bad injuries – was unable to go to the hospital for treatment as no one at the council answered her phone call.

The overall picture is one of the council’s remote “working from home” systems failing to provide acceptable levels of service delivery to residents or the support that is required by elderly and vulnerable residents in the city.

Residents pay high levels of council tax in Brighton and Hove and expect a better-run council with accessible services.

So why, unlike other councils and government departments, is Brighton and Hove City Council continuing to operate remotely, with staff working from home, contrary to the official advice?

Lack of leadership

The answer is that the council has lacked leadership in returning to the workplace: there has been inertia and resistance to the idea of returning to the office, allowing the pandemic status quo to continue.

This has extended to the running of council meetings themselves.

While other councils made a positive effort to keep democracy going during the summer, for example by hiring larger venues such as sports halls to meet social distancing requirements, Brighton and Hove City Council took the opposite approach, reducing meetings to as few as three councillors per meeting and excluding the public and press.

When, last month, the council finally scheduled its first “full” in-person council meeting since the pandemic began, the planning was so poor that the entire meeting had to be cancelled when a Labour councillor reported a positive covid test mid-meeting.

The meeting was meant to include an item to discuss future working arrangements but we didn’t get that far and there has yet to be any indication from the council on whether this meeting will be resumed.

The lack of leadership comes from the top and while there continues to be inertia on returning to a fully operational footing, including face-to-face services for residents, the pandemic status quo will continue and poor service delivery for residents will result. There is indifference from Labour who are not providing any effective opposition to the Greens.

Businesses, shops, schools and universities in Brighton and Hove have all gone back to work but this council is lagging far behind. How can we expect the rest of Brighton and Hove to be back working but not us?

Councillor Steve Bell is the leader of the Conservative group on Brighton and Hove City Council.

  1. Jon Reply

    In Steve’s other tax-payer funded job as Westminster assistant to his partner MP Maria Caulfield he’s witnessed Tory MPs refusal to abide by the rules and wear masks. The result has been MPs spreading COVID and regulations brought back.
    He seems to be pushing a theory that council workers are idle and are just lounging around at home rather than they’re trying to keep services running while not spreading COVID or getting pinged which would close them down
    He of course is not an idle tax-payer funded public servant and has his jobs
    due to being the best candidate who applied

    • Jane Davies Reply

      Getting pinged! Are you having a laugh everyone in the private sector removed this app months ago as we know we have to work.

    • mart Burt Reply

      Jon
      “””The result has been MPs spreading COVID and regulations brought back”””
      Restrictions were removed sometime ago and people encouraged to return to normal… There’s been no regulations brought back. Do catch up…

  2. Hove Guy Reply

    It is ridiculous that the staff are all still working from home, as if we are still in the middle of a lockdown. As with the new regualtions regarding care workers, and future ones for NHS front line staff, they should be obliged to either have the vaccinations and get back to work, or quit the job. It is time this laziness cane to an end, and local ratepayers get what they are paying for.

  3. Some Guy Reply

    I’m not a council worker, but I do work in a large office environment and remote working has actually increased our morale and effectiveness considerably.
    It’s a great shame that the council haven’t made the most of this opportunity to cut costs and boost working conditions for staff, if that is the case.

    • Pissed off single parent Reply

      Yeah that also benefits your customers, unfortunately there are people like myself spent neigh on a year and a half trying to get a member of the council to assist me and my daughter out of supported acomadaiton. instead of anyone actually talking to me I got a letter telling me I had 24hours to pack up mine and my daughter’s life and move to telscombe cliffs. No excuses they are open half the day but don’t do much needed face to face appointments and every single phone just rings through because no one is working. Oh and to top it off the have just given themselves access to interest free loans so the can get housing but none of the other 250,000+ people in this city are just left to deal.

  4. Billy Short Reply

    I must admit when I read this article I had some sympathy with the view, even though I’m a bit of a lefty.
    I do find it extraordinary that the council offices are not open for basic services.
    All they need do is put up a bit of extra perspex like most shops had to do.

    Then again this morning I was looking at the unswept leaves in my street. Where have all the council staff gone?

    Those of us who work as trades people are amazed at the difference between our lives and the new domestic routine for those who work in offices, but who are now ‘working from home’. We had no free time off under furlough – and I’m jealous of that because I got no financial help from the government. And then we had to continue to go to work in other people’s houses, putting ourselves at risk.
    The fact that over this same period the city’s loos remained closed, the streets weren’t swept or weeded, and the bins weren’t emptied despite and obvious increased demand, remains a mystery to me. It was all outdoor work.
    But the worst thing of all, is how this privileged stay-at-home office worker bubble has turned a lot of people into wet-blanket weirdos with fake-green aspirations which do not add up. Those of us who are properly trying to be green, continually trying to reduce our personal carbon footprint, find the local green politicians totally pathetic.
    The council administration itself seems to be in the hands of lobbyists groups who are lead by ideology, more than by common sense. Indeed, our current council seems to be suffering from endemic green washing.
    Oh to be a digital fly on the wall at those council staff Zoom meetings. It’s already like there’s now a digital virus that could prove to be worse than the Covid pandemic itself.

    When are we going to get this beautiful city moving again?

  5. Greens Out Reply

    When are we going to get this beautiful city moving again?

    When the idiot Greens are kicked out. Until then we have to sit and watch the town fall apart

  6. Bert Schmertz Reply

    Councillor Bell is talking complete nonsense, as you would expect from a Con-servative. A great many Council staff are not doing face to face jobs and can work perfectly well from home with modern technology. In case he hadn’t noticed, large numbers of office workers across the country are now working remotely. This has proved to be an effective way of working and in fact has often improved productivity and efficiency. It also means that all those daily commutes are no longer necessary which is surely a good thing in a time of climate crisis? And the fact is that social care and other front line services provided by the council have been operating all through the pandemic. What Councillor Bell conveniently neglects to mention is that eleven years of tory government has resulted in greatly reduced public services because local authorities have seen their budgets slashed. I would suggest that rather than trying to score cheap political points and making baseless claims, Councillor Bell look to his own party and its policies as the cause of much of what is wrong in our city and indeed our country.

    • mart Burt Reply

      Bert Schmertz
      is talking complete nonsense, as you would expect from a green supporter.
      Many Council staff are not doing their jobs and modern technology has proven to be pragmatic.
      In case he hadn’t noticed, large numbers of people do not have access to online technology and need face to face inactions.
      Working from home may have proved to be an effective way of working and it may have improved productivity and efficiency for some organisations but not all.
      The fact that social care and other front line services provided by the council have been operating all through the pandemic goes without saying but then again, opinions may vary on that statement.
      What Bert forgets, while he is correct that tory governments have made cuts to funding, he conveniently forgets the additional funding councils now receive from Business rates and other government funding.
      Also he is obviously unaware that local authorities decide where and what to spend money on.
      BHCC under both labour and greens have a history of negligence where spending is concerned.
      Our city is a cesspit of filth created by a council who fail to provide the most simple of public services, like bin and recycling collection, then you have to wonder, that is not down to government cuts, that’s just pure incompetence. They can’t be bothered to fix broken street lamps yet can have a cycle lane put in or taken out within hours.
      Government cuts haven’t helped but I would suggest that rather than trying to blame government for every thing, look at who is running the council for part of the cause of what is wrong in our city.

  7. Daniel Harris Reply

    For the record, I complained to BHCC in August time. this was the councils lengthy response.

    Customer service centres remaining closed

    “During the pandemic, council services have been working hard to support the city but access to some council services have been run at a limited capacity due to the need to prioritise responding to Covid-19, Covid-19 creating staff shortages, technical restrictions and capacity issues. As government guidelines have started to relax, we’re trying to ensure inclusive and more consistent access for residents by making changes to the current offer.

    The changes include more consistent times for public phone lines being open and opening Brighton customer service centre, located at Barts House, Bartholomew Square BN1 1JE, from Monday 27 September for those that need support contacting council services and those that don’t have access to a computer or phone.

    The customer service centre will be open from 9am to 4:30pm from Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays) with customer service advisers available to support customers to navigate our digital offer or helping to access council services where needed.

    Whilst the services will not be operating a ‘drop-in’ queue system as in the past, they will be providing face to face appointments as needed and the customer service centre staff will be able to assist customers to access the services that they need. This is an interim organisational decision to create capacity for staff to respond to telephone/email/digital queries in a timely manner and to support those who need additional help. We will collate performance data in this interim period to inform longer term recommendations.

    Hove customer service centre will remain closed, with many services that were provided there now available online and via telephone. Staff from Hove will help support both staff from Brighton customer service centre and switchboard enquiries as appropriate. We are also in the process of installing a phone line at Hove for customers to use. Concierge and reception staff at Hove will continue to sign post customers as needed.

    The council has a strong commitment to ensuring that services are fair and inclusive and recognises that not everyone is able to access services digitally. Having said that, Brighton & Hove does have a high percentage of residents who use the internet (Office of National Statistics survey). If those customers who are able to interact with the council digitally do so, it will free up council capacity to help those who aren’t online or need additional support, so we will be continuing with our approach of improving digital services for simple transactions and encouraging those residents who are able to access services in this way to do so, leaving the telephone lines, face to face appointments from services and support from customer services advisors free for those who genuinely need this enhanced support.

    You have said that you are aware that there has been an appointment system operating but that ‘this isn’t working’.

    I’m sorry to hear that you feel the appointment system isn’t working, there is a homelessness duty team who are on site and by appointment, customers can be invited to attend a covid-secure face to face interview.

    As per guidance from central government, our Health & Safety team have been risk assessing all council buildings and activities to help determine the safest way for the council to carry out its work. Throughout this time, the Health & Safety approach (in line with government advice) has been to minimise the risk of infection spreading and to mitigate any risk still identified.

    Therefore the Health & Safety advice to service teams has had an impact on the way that services can be delivered – the advice about face to face meetings (with customers or colleagues) is that these should be kept to an absolute minimum, so if the service can be delivered in any other way (e.g. telephone, post, email, commissioned third sector partners, etc.), then those options should be thoroughly explored, before arranging face to face meetings.

    I hope this helps explain why appointments are not always available on request, but if I’ve misunderstood your point about the appointment system not working, please let me know and I can explore this further, though I hope that the changes being made from 27th September will mitigate your concerns.

    Homemove service and outstanding work

    You mention the Homemove service specifically as having a large amount of outstanding work, I’d like to reassure you that whilst the team have been experiencing significant difficulties with capacity, this has not been impacted by the closure of the customer service centre as this service has always been by telephone and online, so did not experience additional disruption from the closure of the customer service centre. I’m aware of the challenges faced by this team in responding to their customers in a timely way and am assured by the Housing service that reducing the back log of work and improving the service to applicants is their high priority. I am sorry for the delayed response and the difficulties this may have caused.

    Support for rough sleepers who we have a duty to house

    You also mention your concerns for those sleeping rough, we do have a presence at FirstBase and commission third sector partners CGL (Change, Grow, Live) and St Mungos to provide support and services to those threatened with rough sleeping.

    I hope I have covered all of the points you have raised.

    Again, I am sorry for the inconvenience caused”

    Seems to be like with Cllr Bells Intervention here this must come to an end but when will council staff return to work?

  8. A brighton citizen Reply

    Unbelievable and inexcusable that there are still no announcements about returning to work, 5 days after the government announced everyone should return to work.
    I fail to understand why the offices aren’t open or weren’t open to some capacity in July-21 when everyone else in the country returned to their work places.
    Are people making the decisions enjoying working from home too much? Whilst others struggle to pay escalating fuel bills.

    • Some Guy Reply

      WFH is cheaper and easier for a large proportion of office workers. Basically, unless you directly face the public (reception desks, do a lot of face-to-face meetings) there’s very little incentive to return full-time. I don’t work for the council but I am public sector and our productivity has gone way up since working from home. Plus, there are ancillary benefits (reducing traffic, flexibility for childcare, etc) which may or may not apply to individuals.
      Realistically, we’re probably getting better value for money with WFH in place, and most of the delays and disruption are due to people actually catching COVID or otherwise dealing with the effects.

  9. Ben Doyle Reply

    Shame We the tax payer is not getting this so called excellent service that we pay a high tax and parking permits while they’re still WFH. Its funny how the rest of us are back at work and we now have to live with Covid so what makes BHCC councillors so special

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