COUNCILLORS have delivered a withering verdict on plans to privatise the Worcestershire Hub - as bosses admitted for the first time that jobs will be cut.

A Worcester City Council committee held a fierce debate last night over proposals to allow London-based Civica to take over the struggling 'shared service' hub from April.

As your Worcester News revealed last week, it would mean the face-to-face customer service centre at The Hive, public phone number and contacts desks around Worcestershire staying open but ran privately under a money-saving deal.

During the city council's scrutiny committee meeting:

- Councillors were told any deal would lead to a "reduction in the headcount" of the 52 staff, but those losing out would get the chance to be redeployed by Civica into another job

- Some politicians said the forecasting saving to Worcester City Council, pegged at £240,000 to £500,000 over 8.5 years, was too small to justify the move

- Councillor Derek Prodger said his residents "regularly complain" over the hub, that it has "a bad reputation" and revealed he actively avoids it himself because of the existing "poor service"

- Senior council bosses involved with the running of it admitted the Hub regularly misses performance targets, said it was struggling due to budget cuts and insisted keeping it in-house would lead to "salami slicing"

The contract with Civica is being finalised now to get clarity on jobs, and the firm will be penalised for not answering calls in certain time limits

Sarah Daniel, development programme manager at the county council, which is also part of the hub shared service, said: "The hub has been on a real journey since it launched in 2009 - we had the recession which significantly increased call volumes.

"The feedback we get from people is that it regularly takes a long time to get through, we know that and that's something Civica can help us with."

She said the target was for 75 per cent of calls to be answered within 20 seconds, but it was "very rare" that was met.

She also told the committee the focus in recent months has been on pushing people towards using the internet and developing self-service automated responses, but it requires investment which the likes of Civica can fork out for.

“We’ve really concentrated on automating those ‘high volume’, non-complex enquiries so people can access them at their convenience (instead of talking to staff),” she said.

“That’s one way of getting call volumes down. But we do have a capacity issue with our current operating model, we can’t develop at the pace we want to and make the savings required.”

She said one of the alternative options looked at including “doing nothing” and “salami slicing” staff but that would “do nothing to help us continue to deliver the service”.

She also said Civica's savings will include a "reduction in the headcount" and that the firm is being "actively pressed" to finalise those details.

In response to concerns that Worcester City Council’s saving was low, pegged at “a minimum” of £240,000, Helen Frances, who deals with shared services on behalf of the authority, said it was a deliberately conservative estimate.

“The £284,000 is a guaranteed minimum saving for Worcester City, up to over half a million,” she said.

“The hub has ageing telephony and IT, it’s fair to say – part of the benefits of going with Civica is that they will be asked to improve that within the contract.

“By putting it with Civica, a lot of these risks will be removed. We know customers and their demands are changing, people want to access services in different ways and that requires change.

“The contract will give us flexibility to put customers first and manage the uncertainties about the future without any negative impact.”

Cllr Prodger said: "I get complaints from the public on a regular basis, they get frustrated and don't like it - when I get a number for an officer I don't go through the hub myself.

"It's got a bad reputation and doesn't offer a good service, in my opinion."

Fellow Conservative Councillor Roger Knight disagreed, saying he felt the hub offered a “very good service”.

The hub handles public queries on everything from potholes to bus passes on behalf of Worcestershire County Council and district authorities in Worcester and Malvern, with Civica saying an eight-year deal will save around £2.6 million at least, as a combined estimate.

Some of that will be done by encouraging people to access self-service systems on the phone or go online.

In recent years it has averaged anywhere from 37,000 to 100,000 calls per month, with around 40 per cent of those coming from Worcester residents.

The committee were also told how if and when jobs are cut, the redeployment opportunities with Civica will be extensive – and greater than anything the councils could offer.

Councillor Adrian Gregson, chairman of the committee, said the "question is really out" on whether the city council should agree to it.

“These people working at the Hub might not be employed directly by us but they are county employees and we should be mindful of them,” he said.

“There are going to be job losses, there’s going to be cuts as part of this process.”

The feedback is being sent to the Conservative cabinet.

Civica is growing in influence around the UK by running council, police, fire, school and NHS services at 26 different locations.

The company also has a base in Worcestershire already, at the Civic Centre in Pershore, where it runs the benefits and revenues service for councils in the south of the county.

The aim is to launch the deal from the start of April next year, subject to agreement with the districts.

A deal is expected to be finalised before Christmas despite the exact details on jobs, staffing, pay and conditions still being worked through.