With councils up and down the country, Tower Hamlets is facing a massive financial challenge. Reductions in central government funding have left us with a £72 million hole to fill over the next three years.
As these cuts are front-loaded, £30 million of them must be found this year. We have responded to the challenge and agreed proposals to meet it. An emphasis on efficiency and a review of how we provide services has helped us identify savings and find better ways of doing things. But it would be naïve to believe finding savings won't be painful.
Tower Hamlets is full of contrasts - some of the poorest in the country live here, beside some of the most affluent. Having lived and worked here for years, I have witnessed the transformation of our community and how the lives of the most vulnerable have improved.
In November 2010, Tower Hamlets voted in its first directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman. The mayor and cabinet have provided clear direction to senior management that preserving the quality of services for the most vulnerable must be a priority. Some councils have closed children's centres, ours has passed a budget to ensure all stay open. We are providing adult home care at no cost to the service user, one of the few authorities to do so.
In uncertain times, staff morale must be nurtured. There must be a culture of transparency about the task ahead. Regrettably, 500 jobs have to go, many by deleting vacancies and 250 by voluntary redundancy or early retirement.
Senior management have been charged to focus on direct communication, including 'tea with the director' sessions, road shows and regular briefings, so staff have been able to share their concerns with us directly. This has provided opportunities for senior management to take on board different approaches to savings.
We have focused on increasing efficiency, reconfiguring services, de-layering and better deals with suppliers. We have an intolerance of inefficiency. We have been trying to involve all staff to appreciate that an efficiency made can mean a job and/or service saved.
It is not about more of the same; we need to do things differently. By improving home working and encouraging smarter working, we are renting less office space, a major saving. We have self-service checkouts at all our libraries. These have allowed us to offer residents services they need. Against a national backdrop of library closures, we have managed to ensure all our libraries (now called 'idea stores') will remain open - and will be opening a new library next year.
It is vital to keep residents informed of changes to their services and also to allow the widest participation in the key decisions. We have a web-based service where residents can share their thoughts and get council news.
We appreciate the value of keeping talent and we are doing everything to avoid redundancies, by redeployment and retraining where possible. We have retained our Investors in People status.
For staff who have had to leave us, we offer support to prepare them for their next move. Training has always been a part of the council's working life.
The public sector's challenge is to deliver change while protecting services and maintaining the morale, energy and creativity of committed staff who have delivered excellent services to the public.
Kevan Collins is chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council
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