Callers spent an astonishing 30,000 hours on hold while trying to speak to Newcastle City Council last year.
New figures have revealed the huge scale of waiting times on the local authority’s phone lines, as overstretched staff struggle to cope with rocketing demand.
The amount of time callers spent on hold with the council in 2021/22 amounts to roughly 1,250 days, 178 weeks, or almost three and a half years.
A huge spike in waiting times last year has been blamed on understaffing at the contact centre, which is managed by Your Homes Newcastle (YHN), and high call volumes arising from major incidents including the Covid pandemic, storms, and the cost of living crisis.
A YHN boss told councillors on Thursday that cutting the amount of time callers spend on hold was the service’s “number one priority”.
According to a report, around 280,000 calls were placed to the contact centre in 21/22 – with an average waiting time of more than six minutes, adding up to a total of around 30,000 hours over the course of the year.
That had increased dramatically from the previous year, with only around 5,000 hours spent on hold in 2020/21 despite the call volume then being above 300,000.
The council merged its contact centre with YHN due to budget cuts in 2019 and slashed its opening hours, closing at 4pm most days instead of 6pm.
YHN said “significant progress” was made in the merged service’s early days, with the average answering time brought below two minutes – but there has been a major shift in demand since then and difficulty in recruiting new staff.
Figures show an incredible rise in the number of calls about certain issues – with the number of hours spent on calls about garden waste jumping by 4,615%, from just 38 hours in 2018/19 to 1,800 in 2020/21.
Other factors in the delays include many council departments often working from home, revenues and benefits services being shut on a Wednesday, and the launch of the council’s City Lifeline service during the pandemic.
The YHN report states that there is “no doubt” that extra staffing would improve callers’ experience, but admits that “the root causes of this are multi-faceted and difficult to address and therefore are not likely to be quick wins”.
At a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee on Thursday, Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone said: “A lot of people tell me that they wait a very long time to get through to the council, whoever they are trying to get through to, and I find that myself. It is not exceptional to wait 10, 20, 30 minutes to get through to the council or YHN.”
Jill Davison, assistant director of insight and engagement for YHN, replied that 94% of calls are answered within 10 minutes – but admitted that improvement was needed.
She said: “We hope it is improving, we strive to improve it and it is our number one priority. Pre-Covid, the decision was made to merge the call centres and we were achieving a call time of two minutes.
“It is those instances of high demand caused by storms, fence repairs, all the things that go with that.”
Ms Davison added: “Recruitment is a big challenge. We have an ongoing recruitment job advert so that we have a constant stream coming in. We are slightly understaffed at the moment.”
Her report to the committee states that 14 staff have been redeployed to help with the increase in calls and that a new team has been set up specifically to deal with complex or difficult queries, freeing up frontline call handlers.
The most recent data for this September states that 80% of calls to the contact centre were answered, at an average wait time of 5 minutes and 24 seconds.