With the possibility of a new set of councillors taking control of Lewes District Council, and with little or no improvement on the ability of local residents being able to get through to the council on the phone at all, let alone to speak to someone who knows anything about what you want to talk about, it is time to have another look at what is increasingly looking like an administrative merger between Lewes and Eastbourne Councils.

A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME

It all started a few years ago.  With money being tight, what better than to share a few back-office functions with a nearby council?  It seemed common sense and non-controversial, so there was little opposition.

But, without any apparent supervision from councillors, senior staff, many of whom no longer seem to be working for the council, transformed this apparently modest proposal into a “Joint Transformation Programme”, which would affect the whole way both councils operated.

It is a good idea to save money, but anyone can save money by cutting back staff so that there are not enough of them to do the job properly.  This is what seems to have happened. The proposed efficiency savings from sharing resources do not appear to have materialised.

Even if you get through on the phone you get some funny responses. Former councillor Susan Murray says:

  • “I had occasion to ring about the public convenience in what was the magistrate’s court car park. The person I spoke to couldn’t seem to put me through to the correct person to deal with my query unless I told her what street the loos were on – minor,of course, but very typical of the lack of local knowledge” (for those not familiar with Lewes town these toilets are not on a street.)
  • A constituent of mine rang the call centre to report drug paraphernalia near her house. The response was to tell her to pick it up, double wrapped dispose with her household refuse. Clearly not the appropriate answer!! “

Susan reports  that the cabinet has approved a policy around dealing with difficult customers without any recognition that there must be a fair few incredibly frustrated customers after their experiences with the telephone system. At the very least this policy should have gone alongside a customer charter so that both sides know their rights and responsibilities.

In this article the Eye highlighted the problems with staff in Eastbourne being unfamiliar with Lewes and visa-versa, the problems of staff having to continually travel between Lewes and Eastbourne, the problems of providing emergency cold weather shelters only in Eastbourne, which homeless people in the Lewes area could not access, the difficulty of getting through on the phone and the application of identical council house allocation policies in Lewes and Eastbourne simply for administrative convenience. Here we published a letter from a senior member of staff which highlighted the demoralisation staff felt and their concerns at the degradation  of services.

Since then the merger progress has continued:

  • Council meeting schedules have been harmonised so that Lewes Council meets at the same frequency as Eastbourne, for administrative convenience
  • Council members are no longer allowed to table amendments at meetings, but have to do so in advance. This is for officer convenience and means that councillors cannot come to an agreement around a proposal that everyone agrees on but which was not tabled in advance.
  • Both councils operate a scheme for paying extra housing benefit when the operation of the usual rules would cause hardship. Officers have proposed that both councils should have the same scheme. Something similar has happened with council tax benefits.
  • The council has failed to give the Inland Revenue details of deductions from some staff and council members for a period of nearly five months. This is important because many of the people affected have to claim benefits like tax credits and universal credit, which cannot be calculated without this information.  No date has been set for remedying the problem.  There also appears to have been some problems with making deductions for council tax.
  • The turnover of staff is increasing due to dissatisfaction and a large amount of expertise is being lost to the council.
  • There appears to be no way that council members can scrutinise what is going on. They are sent bland reports, which appear not to represent what seems to be happening on the ground.

WHAT NEXT?

Quite how anyone thought that you could merge the administration of one large town covering a small area with a council covering a large geographical area with a number of small towns and a large amount of countryside escapes the Eye.

Plainly a lot has been done that cannot be undone, but let us hope that whoever is in control of the council at the end of July gets a firm grip on this issue.  They may also wish to investigate what is happening to some of the 49 sites that the council tried to sell off some time ago.  The homeless hostel still stands empty and the toilets in Western Road Lewes are in a sorry state.

Meanwhile other services continue to deteriorate in quality.

They Eye may be mistaken, but neither the Greens or the Lib-Dems seems to have strongly grasped the issue and it has been left to independent council members to raise concerns.