The local government workforce: equal by default

By Heather Wakefield | 19 August 2021

Over the last two years I have had the privilege of being a Commissioner on APSE’s 2030 Local Government Commission. Our report – Local by Default – calls for a new constitutional settlement, giving properly funded local government parity of esteem with central government administrations across the UK, enshrining new roles and powers for councils to exercise responsibility over local public services - all based on a devolution framework founded on the principles of subsidiarity, autonomy and local flexibility. 

Recognising the critical role that local councils play in our democracy and society must be the way to go. But as the APSE Commission report says, so must appreciation of the work of the local government and school workforces covered by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services (NJC). After all, if COVID hasn’t highlighted the vital importance of care and housing workers, school cleaners, caterers, caretakers and business managers, refuse collectors, bereavement, parks and streetscene services, whatever will?

Yet the local government workforce has been consistently undervalued by successive governments. A qualified residential care worker now earns 24% less than in 2010 once RPI inflation is taken into account. Refuse collectors are 15% short and teaching assistants 20%. On top of that, austerity-driven cuts to council funding have driven a ten-year assault on pay-related conditions such as unsocial hours’ payments, sick pay and holiday pay. 46% of UNISON members in a 2016 survey had experienced such changes, 66% of them imposed, with redundancy the only alternative to acceptance.

Three quarters of NJC workers are women, with 50% of jobs part-time. It is now firmly established as the public sector’s poorest relation. Facing a three-year pay freeze between 2010 and 2012, compared to two years for other public sector groups, and subsequent below-inflation settlements, it is not surprising that earnings compare badly. NHS catering workers and nursery nurses register a 13% pay lead over their council equivalents. A School Business Manager faces a 26% deficit compared to an NHS Business Manager, while a Principal Environmental Health Officer’s pay packet is 32% smaller than a Health Improvement Principal’s. 

As the APSE Commission report recognises, the squeeze is not just on NJC pay, but jobs too. Over 780,000 were lost from English councils alone between 2009 and 2018, while NHS and central government headcounts grew. It’s no surprise then that 28% of local government workers regularly work unpaid overtime, compared to 15% across the economy. Combined with the impact of COVID, this leaves them with levels of anxiety which are a third higher than the economy-wide average. A 25% pay increase would be required to compensate for unpaid overtime alone.

And the problems go much deeper than pay, though the 1.75% pay offer doesn’t even meet inflation of 3.9%. There is a deficit in skills, with recruitment problems commonplace and lack of funds for training, as the sector fails to compete with other areas of the public and private sectors. Local councils’ historic role of providing local training and skills has been undermined by years of commissioning and fragmented service delivery. Care services now compete with supermarkets, who offer better hours, better pay and steady employment. The recently reported HGV driver crisis is also a case in point.

With local government spending at its lowest proportion of GDP since 1948 and additional care and Covid cost pressures adding to the sector’s looming financial crisis, APSE’s ‘Local by Default’ report is also calling unashamedly for some national measures. These include a long-term sustainable financial settlement, sufficient to meet local needs, possibly using a minimum guaranteed level of GDP as a safety net, and recognition that local government services are of equal importance to the NHS, central government and others in the public sector.  

The APSE Commission message is clear: We need a well-trained, properly rewarded workforce to meet future challenges for local public services – from climate change to the housing crisis. This must include equal treatment for the same and equivalent work across the public sector. In order to achieve this, the report calls for a linked system of public sector pay and conditions, based on the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. This might not be an easy option for trade unions for whom sectoral pay bargaining has been a key raison d’etre and who might fear ‘levelling down’. But there’s a chance for some forward-looking ‘collective’ bargaining across public service unions too - for the benefit of all. And for local government workers, things could only get better.     

Heather Wakefield is a Commissioner on APSE’s 2030 Local Government Commission. She was head of local government at Unison 2001-2018

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