A WATCHDOG committee has raised concerns about staffing levels for an East Lancs council amid ongoing home working and response times for members and residents.

Councillors sitting on Rossendale's overview and scrutiny committee have questioned staffing arrangements aafter a report said 46 people had left the authority in a recent three-month period. 

Of those, 25 left on a voluntary basis, 11 had come to the end of temporary contracts and some others had been on the government-backed Kick-start work experience programme.

The total workforce for the borough is between 160 and 180 full-time employees, it was confirmed.

Conservative Cllr Granville Morris said: “The number of 46 (departures) is high for one quarter. It’s a bit worrying. The report has tried to reflect the reasons why.

" There has obviously been a massive impact with Covid, which was national. Some matters related to illness but the majority of people left for career progression.

"Is morale reasonably good at the moment? Could that be a reason why people are leaving? Also, we are told unemployment is at its lowest nationally for 40 or 50 years. Is that why we have difficulty recruiting?

Human resources manager Clare Law said: "We do an exit poll when someone leaves and we do ask about staff morale. But morale has not been raised as a reason that I’m aware of.

"Various reasons have been given. We have got an aged workforce with retirements. Some people have moved for career progression. We also have some challenges in recruiting due to the salaries which councils can pay compared to the private sector.

“We have flexible working for staff. They can work from home if it’s more productive. Years ago, people wanted to work for councils because they offered flexible working and good pensions.

"Now, flexibility is being offered more widely. We still have good pensions but councils are struggling to recruit. It’s not just us. Ribble Valley, Pendle, Hyndburn and Preston councils are all experiencing it. We have to promote vacancies three times to get an applicant.”

Cllr Morris also questioned the council's reliance on home working when the government was encouraging people to return to the office.

Ms Law said: “A maximum of two days per week at home is allowed, depending on the job. If someone is working on a really big job  where they would be more productive at home, they might be allowed more than two days of home-working a week. The boundaries between home and the office are blurring.”

Mandy Lewis, the council's economic development director, added: “If the council shifted to 100 per cent office working, we would be in a diminishing pool for recruitment.  We are being flexible and creative. The human resources system here is trying to work with managers to achieve that.

Cllr Morris also said: "I hear about difficulties from residents about the time it takes to contact staff and officers. In the early days of the pandemic, we got quite good responses. But lately, people say they’re not getting through to the right people.

“I’ve had that experience too. When I leave a message, it’s 50-50 whether some people come back to me. I’m worried we are losing information about people contacting us.”