Belfast Telegraph

Poll: Council employees offered 'counselling' courses, but is it all just 'mumbo-jumbo'?

BY NOEL MCADAM

Council staff are being offered counselling to help cope with the looming upheaval in local government, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Employees can take classes in 'emotional resilience' ahead of the massive shake-up later this year when – after more than a decade of delay and uncertainty – the present 26 councils are being amalgamated into 11 new authorities.

Employees will be offered the counselling to deal with the proposed changes in their work patterns when the new councils are formed.

But questions are already being asked over whether the initiative is worthwhile in the current harsh economic climate.

And the decision to go ahead with the courses, which have been branded 'mumbo-jumbo', could also be debated by the Stormont committee which oversees local government. The Stormont minister in charge of the changes, Mark H Durkan, has made clear however that his department is not picking up the bill.

Instead, councils themselves appear to be funding the one-day workshops, which cost £60 per person and could then be passed on to rate-payers.

And with estimates that up to 30 people from each of the 26 councils – out of a total local government staff of 9,000 – will attend, the cost could be as high as £46,800.

Elections to the so-called 'super-councils' take place in May and – as the Belfast Telegraph revealed last year – they will operate 'in shadow form' in parallel with the existing 26 for a year. But Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott (below), a member of the Stormont committee monitoring the overhaul of local councils, said: "I think you would have to question how useful this is going to be.

"I am all in favour of training for both staff and councillors, but not in favour of training for training's sake. The process, both in terms of content and the financial aspect, could amount to mumbo jumbo.

"Obviously, there are going to be amalgamations, but is it any different really from one business amalgamating with another, and do staff get trained in building resilience for that?

"And is it any different really from people changing their jobs, and again, why is this being front-loaded before the changes have even taken place, rather than nearer 2015, when the new councils become operational?"

The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said the issue could be discussed by the committee. "I would like to see the plans and also how much it is costing," he added.

And SDLP committee member and first nationalist Lord Mayor of Belfast Alban Maginness added: "It seems to me to be something extraneous to what is necessary for people preparing to change from one council to another."

Adrian Kerr, accounting officer with the Local Government Training Group organising the courses, said: "We are making the biggest changes in local government in 40 years and people are being asked to take on board the changes while continuing to do their own job.

"These are people who have had no salary increase for four years and have faced uncertainty about what is happening in local government for more than 10 years.

"It has been stop-go, stop-go, so it seems to me there is a duty of care to them."

A statement from Mr Durkan's department added: "The funding is being administered through DOE and each of the 11 new council clusters is availing of that funding. However, to date, it has not been used to fund training in emotional resilience."

Training 'could cut sickness levels'

Training for council staff could help prevent them from taking leave because of stress, according to one elected representative, from a council where the courses have already started.

The SDLP's Patsy Kelly – a councillor in Strabane, which is being merged with the larger Londonderry local authority – said he believed the courses are worthwhile.

"When they set up the new councils people could be going off with stress because they have not been properly trained," he said. "There are a lot of changes coming and people need help. You have to work with people. I have always said, if you look after your staff, your staff will look after you." But he said he could not support any of the courses being made available for councillors.

"Simply because we do not know who will still be there after May and who will be re-elected," he added. A council spokesperson for Derry City Council explained that both Derry City Council and Strabane District Council have received funding from the DoE to provide a range of induction training and support for staff in preparation for the pending local government reform.

"One of the courses on offer is a one-day Emotional Resilience course aimed at equipping staff with the skills and techniques to respond to the changes.

"The first course took place earlier this month and was well attended, while the second session is scheduled to take place in mid-February.

"Other courses on offer in the coming months as part of the change process are competency based interview skills, skills for interviewers, collaboration and team-building."

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