Elliot Keck is the Investigations Campaigns Manager for the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
At a cabinet meeting on 15th May, the Conservative opposition put up a decent fight to the proposal to extend South Cambridgeshire District Council’s four-day working week trial to March 2024. This bonkers scheme has been underway in the Lib Dem-led council since January 2023. It is a textbook example of how not to impose change within a local authority. Fiddled figures, serious problems with transparency, and ideological zeal have created, predictably, a perfect storm. If it looks like a radical experiment and quacks like a radical experiment, it’s probably a radical experiment. It’s exactly why we at the TaxPayers’ Alliance have launched a campaign against a four-day week in councils and the public sector more broadly. Leave the radical experiments to the private sector.
Leading the charge for the Conservatives, Cllr Heather Williams leapt on comments by the Leader of the Council on the BBC that morning that many other councils were considering running a four-day week trial, and had been in contact with South Cambs’ chief executive about her PhD on the subject matter. The Leader had almost certainly allowed her comments to get away from her and was left stumbling when challenged. Cllr Williams also requested that the trial extension be put to the whole council, rather than being restricted to a Lib Dem cabinet rubber stamp. For such a significant change to council operations, that will last for almost a year, this was the least that local taxpayers would expect. Cllr Dr Richard Williams also clearly listened closely to the Leader’s BBC interview, launching a brilliant broadside against her for saying that the deterioration in the council’s performance related to “really minor issues.” This was exactly the sort of scrutiny the crackpot council scheme deserved.
Unfortunately, this opposition came very late in the day. Ever since the trial was announced in September 2022, the local Conservatives have been sluggish in mobilising against the scheme. Anthony Browne, the local MP, is a noteworthy exception and wrote for Conservative Home about the trial. Independent councillor, Dan Lentell, has been similarly sceptical. But it largely seems that Conservative efforts to scrutinise and oppose such a high-profile plan – with the might of the council bureaucracy and, in particular, the council’s chief executive behind it – were weak, disjointed, and too afraid of upsetting the delicate dispositions of council officers.
It took the mobilisation of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the interest of national media to really shift opposition into gear. This is somewhat understandable. Being in opposition in a local council is not an easy gig – resources are limited. Most councillors have full-time jobs and have to juggle the pressures of casework and local issues with scrutinising the council’s performance more broadly. When a council has a University of Cambridge research institute sticking a seal of approval on the trial’s results, the easy option is often just to nod along. When there isn’t even the chance of a vote to express opposition – there will only be a full council vote next year when a decision is made about whether to make this trial permanent – this impetus grows.
But being in opposition means there is little excuse not to scrutinise. The key thing is to investigate, then decide your position early and plan. This doesn’t mean launching an immediate campaign, fireworks and all. At the TaxPayers’ Alliance we first discovered this plan in September, when the council announced the trial. Instinctively we had concerns – a four-day week is an emerging idea and one with potential benefits. But the emphasis is on emerging. This is not standard practice in the private sector. Data on its impact is limited.
So we did our research into the council and its performance. Quickly we noticed that its offices had one of the lowest occupancy rates in the country – just six per cent across a seven-month period in 2022. If there are problems with staff performance at an organisation, getting people behind desks would surely be a far better port of call. And when key performance data finally landed, the results were clear: relative to before the pandemic, most metrics got worse. Even relative to 2022, an already bad year, only nine out of 16 saw an improvement, and some key ones (like time to answer the telephone) had deteriorated. Spending on agency staff, a key justification for the trial, went up, not down as was intended.
At this point, it was clear to us and the national media that the four-day week had been a failed experiment pushed by an over zealous chief executive. But local taxpayers were still treated to the embarrassing spectacle of Conservative councillors praising the policy and bickering with their counterparts about whether they had been provided the right documents.
So we launched a petition, campaigned in the local area, spoke to residents, engaged with local politicians, wrote op-eds, published research and analysis. We made life difficult for the council and brought a level of national and local attention that wasn’t appreciated.
Given the radical nature of the plans, it was attention that was well deserved and well overdue. It’s a reminder to council oppositions across the country of the need to scrutinise and strategise. It doesn’t mean kneejerk opposition. Maybe Conservative councillors in South Cambridgeshire saw some merit in giving the trial a go. But they could have spent the time ensuring that this wasn’t just another council scheme surreptitiously nodded through by a supine cabinet.
Opposition at local authority level is daunting, frustrating, and time consuming. But it is vital, for taxpayers and for local democracy. Given the huge increase in the number of Conservative oppositions following the recent local elections, this is more important than ever. Bold, effective opposition can make a huge difference – and it’s a lesson Conservatives may do well to learn.