Unfilled job vacancies in key departments is “affecting council performance” in Milton Keynes

A view from the press bench of the Scrutiny Management Committee in action
A view from the press bench of the Scrutiny Management Committee in action

Job vacancies of up to one in four in two key departments is affecting council performance, and now councillors have called for action.

The issue of the council being unable to fill vacancies has been highlighted in reports presented to a Milton Keynes Council committee which show a backlog of hundreds of planning applications, and problems in dealing with housing issues.

Deputy mayor Andrew Geary (Cons, Newport North & Hanslope), said: “We have a double problem in planning, because we are losing good planners to the private sector all the time. We are not unique here, housebuilding is going on apace and good planners are snapped up by the private sector.”

Cllr Geary, a former council leader who also sits on the Development Control Committee, told the Wednesday’s meeting of the Scrutiny Management Committee that the council also has a “reputational problem”.

He said: “It is no secret that under a previous chief planner we lost 45 planners in two years. We have, as an authority, a major reputational problem and that ain’t going to get better any time soon.”

The committee was told that at the end of June, there was a backlog of 403 planning applications awaiting a decision.

Sarah Gonsalves, the council’s director of policy, insight, and communications, said: “Two areas where we are struggling to recruit is in planning and homelessness prevention. I think my colleagues would say that they are really struggling to recruit certain professionals within planning. Planning is an in-demand profession.”

She added that it was not a case of not having the funding, but it is about vacancies. “There’s just a constant process of recruiting going on,” she added.

The council, as well as competing with the private sector, has also seen Government agencies, such as Homes England just recruit “thousands of additional planners”.

Cllr Ric Brackenbury (Lib Dem, Campbell Park & Old Woughton) said vacancies seemed to be an “emerging issue” which could have an impact on the council’s budget.

“It does seem to me that we have got an emerging issue and it is getting worse,” he said.

In the housing department, the committee was told that each officer has 75 cases of people in need of help, where 25 would be more usual. There were the equivalent of 6.5 staff vacancies reported at the end of June.

Cllr Jenni Ferrans (Lib Dem, Monkston), who chairs the Community and Housing Scrutiny Committee said there was an even more fundamental problem in housing.

“We are hundreds and hundreds of houses below target and we cannot manufacture houses that don’t exist. More cases are coming forward earlier, so the demand is going up. Without housing, you end up with people in temporary accommodation, it is as simple as that.”

The committee resolved to refer the issue to the council’s ruling Labour Cabinet, including looking at giving so-called Golden Hellos to encourage people to apply for posts at the council.

The committee heard that in the council’s adult social care department, such an approach has filled all the council’s vacancies there and they no longer employ agency workers.

After the meeting, a council spokesperson said the vacancy rate in planning is “about 5 per cent” but they have been at a higher level in the past. Vacancies in housing are “around 25 per cent” in part because the team has been expanded to cope with changes in the law, and increasing demand.

“Recruiting in specialist areas such as planning can take slightly longer given the experience required. We promote that MK is a great place to live and MK Council is a great place to work – we want to attract the best and brightest people out there to come work with us.”

The spokesperson added that in housing: “Professionals in this area are in demand right across the country and we’re in competition with local housing organisations.”

All the council’s job vacancies are posted on its website.