£22m phone controversy as Sheffield Council slammed for single number change

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SHEFFIELD Council is spending £22 million over the next three years setting up a new single telephone number for all public calls and changing IT systems - as it makes cuts of £219m elsewhere.

Trade unions have slammed the move - but the council’s leadership says the cost will be outweighed in subsequent years, predicting a net saving of £11.1m within a decade and up to £4.5m each year after that.

From April one single number will replace the 900 different telephone numbers used to contact council departments. The council’s website will also give access to more services online.

Other changes include allowing social services staff and care workers to file reports online so they spend less time at offices filling in paperwork and more time with clients.

But Chris Jenkinson of trade union Unison, said: “We find it incredible that the ruling Lib Dems in Sheffield will be investing in this programme at a time when jobs are being lost and services cut.

“This is not something the council has got to do and the projected savings are modest - within the first five years, the change will only have saved £23.5m - £1.5m net after costs. We all know that the cost of expensive public projects can mushroom, so that is not even certain.

“Technology advances at such speed that within a few years, the council’s new system could well be outdated.

“We fear the council will get rid of its face-to-face First Point offices, more buildings will close in local communities and more jobs will be lost.”

He added: “The cost of implementing the change, broken down over the next three years, is more than £7m pounds each year. That would come close to covering the £9m being saved by making the 270 redundancies in 2011/12.

The Customer First Programme is supported by the Liberal Democrats and Labour councillors.

Sheffield Council leader, Coun Paul Scriven, said: “All the trade unions have done is whinge and whine about changes we are making without coming up with any credible alternatives.

“This will be a revolution in customer service - with extended hours so people can contact our service centre until 8pm at night, the ability to do much more via our website, and make reports of things like changes of address or bereavements only once rather than several times to different departments.

Coun Scriven said some jobs would go due to “more efficient working practices” and buildings would close as there would be less office-based staff, but he pledged that local First Point centres would remain.