Workplace Report December 2019


Revised pay bands for council staff tighten up spinal column

The latest move on pay for local authority staff, after years of austerity, has been a reform of the national pay spine. But, with local bargaining over grade structures, outcomes across England and Wales have been very varied. 

Local government workers have often been left feeling like the Cinderellas of the public sector in recent years. Their employers, represented mainly by the Local Government Association (LGA), were not directly affected by central government pay curbs and caps, but neither did they get funding for significant across-the-board pay rises. 

All too often, for many, it was just 1% or no annual pay rise at all. Tellingly, it was increases in the statutory National Minimum Wage, as well as support for the voluntary Living Wage set by the Living Wage Foundation (LWF) that put negotiators in the National Joint Council (NJC) under increasing pressure to at least increase the lowest pay rates in the Single Status (Green Book) agreement. 

These pressures led to bigger annual increases for the lowest paid in the 2016-2018 two-year deal, followed up in the 2018-20 pay deal with a 2% increase for those higher up the ladder. But bigger rises just for the lowest paid lead eventually to the compression of pay differentials, upsetting job-evaluation based differences in pay levels across the workforce. Something more had to be done and the national negotiations were the place to start.

Compared with other public sector agreements — such as NHS Agenda for Change — NJC pay negotiations set pay levels in a very particular way. The LGA and the three signatory unions (GMB, UNISON and Unite) agree increases in the pay spine (a collection of pay levels in ascending order, known as spinal column points or SCPs). But they depend on locally-agreed pay structures to implement them. 

As part of the 2018-20 pay deal, the parties agreed that it was time to review the pay spine, while maintaining the same principles that led to its introduction over 20 years ago:

• single status: common terms and conditions of employment for different groups of workers;

• equal pay and equality: pay and grading to be fair and non-discriminatory, complying with equal pay legislation and associated codes of practice;

• jointness: trade union representatives fully involved in reviewing local grading structures; and

• openness: so employees know how job evaluation works and how their own job was scored.

A revised spine was introduced in April this year (see table 1). Simon Pannell, the LGA’s principal adviser for employment and negotiations, explained why it was needed: “When the National Living Wage was introduced in 2016 the target was that it should reach 60% of median hourly earnings by 2020. 

“It was clear at that stage that the existing pay spine which had already seen differentials squeezed over a number of years could not survive the intended level for the new statutory benchmark.

“Two separate two-year pay deals mapped out our response to the challenge and the last element was the new pay spine that established even gaps between pay points in the lower half of the spine.”

Table 1: Local authority pay spine

Old SCP April 2018 New SCP April 2019
Per annum Per 
hour Per annum Per hour
6 £16,394 £8.50 1 £17,364 £9.00
7 £16,495 £8.55
8 £16,626 £8.62 2 £17,711 £9.18
9 £16,755 £8.68
10 £16,863 £8.74 3 £18,065 £9.36
11 £17,007 £8.82
12 £17,173 £8.90 4 £18,426 £9.55
13 £17,391 £9.01
14 £17,681 £9.16 5 £18,795 £9.74
15 £17,972 £9.32
16 £18,319 £9.50 6 £19,171 £9.94
17 £18,672 £9.68
18 £18,870 £9.78 7 £19,554 £10.14
19 £19,446 £10.08 8 £19,945 £10.34
20 £19,819 £10.27 9 £20,344 £10.54
10 £20,751 £10.76
21 £20,541 £10.65 11 £21,166 £10.97
22 £21,074 £10.92 12 £21,589 £11.19
13 13 £22,021 £11.41
23 £21,693 £11.24 14 £22,462 £11.64
24 £22,401 £11.61 15 £22,911 £11.88
16 £23,369 £12.11
25 £23,111 £11.98 17 £23,836 £12.35
18 18 £24,313 £12.60
26 £23,866 £12.37 19 £24,799 £12.85
27 £24,657 £12.78 20 £25,295 £13.11
21 £25,801 £13.37
28 £25,463 £13.20 22 £26,317 £13.64
49 £44,697 £23.17 43 £45,591 £23.63

The revised spine had a new minimum salary of £17,364, known as “new SCP 1”, which took the place of the two previous lowest rates, old SCP 6 and 7. Based on the Green Book’s 37-hour week that amounted to £9 an hour — the value of the voluntary Living Wage outside London at the time. For authorities with a shorter basic working week — for example, Manchester and Worcestershire on 35 hours, Sefton on 36, Trafford 36.25 and Oldham on 36.66 hours — that translated into a higher hourly rate. 

Pay levels up to old SCP 17 were “paired off” to create new SCPs 1 to 6. Equal steps worth 2% of pay were set between the new SCPs 1 to 22 (equivalent to old SCPs 6 to 28), requiring the creation of a number of new points (new SCPs 10, 13, 16, 18 and 21). SCPs 23 and above (equivalent to old points 29 and above) increased by 2.0%. 

The updated NJC spine ends at point 43, worth £45,591 a year. Councils in Greater London have their own 65-point “GLPC” inner and outer spines, including London Weighting, and the value of each of their pay points is higher.

Applying the updated spine

According to Pannell, the vast majority of councils were able to implement the new pay spine on time and those that didn’t generally indicated that the work would be completed by June. But what has it meant for actual pay levels, affected not just by the updated national pay spine, but also locally-agreed pay structures? 

The Labour Research Department (LRD) contacted metropolitan, shire and unitary councils in England and Wales in June and July to check pay levels for a number of “generic” jobs. The great majority of councils that responded were using the new pay spine in one way or another, with a minority using local pay rates for some or all job roles. The full results can be downloaded by LRD Payline subscribers. 


Almost all (92%) of councils in the survey have cleaners on their payroll. Nationally, these councils typically start their pay grades at SCP 1 (£17,364) and end them at SCP 2 (£17,711). However, there are councils starting cleaners on more (for example, SCP 3, £18,065 in Liverpool) while grades covering them can reach further up the pay spine (for example SCP 6, £19,171 at Barnsley). Cleaners are among those most likely to be affected by authorities’ Living Wage policies, while councils not following the NJC spine (just over one in 10, outside London, see below) have their own local pay spines and salary levels.

Refuse operatives

This role was least likely to be covered by councils’ own pay structures (51%), often because of contracting out or where refuse collection was the responsibility of a different authority covering the same locality. The median for the lowest pay point for refuse operatives’ grades was SCP 5 (£18,795 on the NJC spine outside London), but for the middle half of councils that could be anywhere between SCP 4 and SCP 6. The median “max” for their pay was SCP 7 (£19,554), but it is often higher: in a quarter of cases, SCP 11 (£21,166) or above. Monmouthshire, for example, pays SCP 5 to 8 for a loader and 9 to 13 (£22,021) for a driver.

Home care workers 

Almost two-thirds (63%) of councils in the survey employ domiciliary care assistants, and the median level for their grade minimum was SCP 5 (£18,795 on the NJC spine). However there was considerable variation between different authorities, with the middle half setting their minimum somewhere between SCP 4 and SCP 7. The maximum of their grade was likely to be SCP 7, but in the middle half of councils it could be anywhere between SCP 6 and SCP 11 (£21,166). Ceredigion, for example pays care assistants on SCP 4 and senior care assistants on SCP 7 to 10 (one of the new points in the spine, worth £20,751).

Teaching Assistants

Councils sometimes take a different approach to school-based staff and other council workers covered by the NJC agreement, with the rise of academy schools complicating the picture, but 89% of those responding were able to provide pay figures for teaching assistants (TAs) and higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) — Blackpool was an example of a council that couldn’t, as it said none were directly employed. Most, but not all authorities, classified Level 4 teaching assistants and above as HLTAs. 

To sum up the position around the country for TAs, the middle half of councils in the survey had a lowest pay point somewhere between SCP 2 to SCP 5, the median was SCP 3 (£18,065). For their highest pay point, half said that would be between SCP 7 and SCP 17, with the median either SCP 11 (£21,166) or 12 (£21,589). 

For HLTAs pay was likely to start at SCP 15 (with the middle half of authorities paying between SCP 11 and SCP 19) and commonly runs to SCP 23 (with the middle half paying between SCP 19 and SCP 25). Actual pay might depend on whether they were employed pro-rata on term time only contracts. Birmingham’s broad pay band covering HLTAs ranges from SCP 23 (£26,999) to SCP 31 (£33,799). 

Trading Standards/Environmental Health

Around eight out of 10 authorities employed trading standards officers (TSOs) and environmental health officers (EHOs) or their equivalents. Entry-level pay for a TSO was typically SCP 28 (£31,371), between SCP 25 and SCP 31 in the middle half of authorities. Top-end pay would, at the median, be SCP 33 (£35,934) but could easily be between SCP 31 and SCP 35 (at least the rate paid by a quarter of authorities). 

TSO pay at Derby runs from SCP 26 (£29,636) to SCP 42 (£44,632). For EHO grades (sometimes described as “senior” posts) pay levels at the median started at SCP 29, with half of authorities paying between SCP 25 and SCP 31. At scale max, the median spine point was 34 (with half paying between 31 and 35). 

Local applications of pay spine

The variety in these pay levels reflects the way that the NJC spine (or its London equivalents) is put into practice at authority level. There are so many different possibilities but — broadly speaking — four main approaches. 

Among 167 authorities responding to the survey: 

• the spine was applied more or less as negotiated by 32% of authorities (what we could call the standard approach), but with many choosing to omit points, either at the bottom (SCP 1 or 2) to raise minimum pay, or in the middle of the range (often, the ‘new’ points added in to the updated spine, 10, 13, 16, 18 and 21) - a few extra points might be added at the top, too, by these authorities;

• big extensions to the top of the spine had been made by almost as many, 30% of responding authorities, taking the spine to SCPs in the 50s, 60s and even 70s. With no national rules on how these extra spinal column points should be spaced out and how much more each extra point should be worth, there appeared to be considerable variation from one authority to the next; 

• other more specific adaptations or variations, which could include changing the value of individual spine points, or basing pay levels more loosely on what has been negotiated nationally. Around a quarter (26%) of authorities had done something of that sort while still following the NJC (or GLPC) spine to some degree;

• almost 13% of those responding indicated that they did not apply the national spine and, although their pay structures in some cases look very much like those of authorities following the NJC agreement, pay arrangements and levels were potentially even more diverse. 

Examples of authorities taking a more or less standard approach included Caerphilly (using the 43-point spine for its 12 grades), Gloucestershire (which does it in an 11-grade structure) and Knowsley which squeezes 16 grades into 43 points, half of them in the form of short, two-point grades. A number of these stuck pretty closely to the NJC spine, but added a few points to the top of the scale: a point 44 worth £46,561 in Devon; 3 additional points at Gateshead; and five higher “spot rates” (single-point grades) in Hull. 

The decision to miss out some points in the updated spine tended to be motivated by a desire either to pay more as a minimum; or to prevent grades getting too long, for example, on equality grounds; or just to fit in well with an existing grading structure — a point made by Stockton. A decision of that kind inevitably has consequences: it might maintain higher than expected steps up for some staff though incremental progression or promotion, or help reduce the number of steps available within a grade.

Leicester does not use rates where there were no previous comparative values. At St Helens, SCP 1 and the five new points between 10 and 21 are suspended via a local agreement.

Trafford explained that it is not using some SCPs, as that “would have meant that our staff on bands they fall within would have had more spinal column points to move up before getting to the top of the band”. 

Elsewhere it was about minimum pay: the Durham Living Wage previously corresponded to point 10 on the old spine, worth £8.74, but is now aligned with the new SCP 3 worth £9.36. 

Authorities that have significantly extended their spines while still saying they follow the NJC have done it in different ways and for different reasons. In Rutland, the 43 points of the updated spine assimilated across to the County Borough’s grading structure, but it was extended cover some senior officer grades, taking the top point to SCP 48. Of course there is no set value to these higher points in the NJC spine, but in this case Rutland have set the top rate at £51,138. 

A few authorities are in a league of their own, like Kirklees with a top spine point of 77 (£177,107) and Lancashire where the national spine points increase incrementally up to point 90 (CE) worth £211,023, to cover all the grades on the Lancashire Pay Spine. 

Some changes to the value of individual spinal column points were reported at Dudley (from SCP 18 onwards), at Southampton (salary levels higher at SCPs 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15), and at Cheshire West and Chester (which varies away from the national pay spine at new SCP 32 and above). Cambridgeshire uses points 1 to 28 as per national rates, but local pay rates apply above that level. Powys had some variations “but these are in place to recognise ‘shift patterns’ or ‘night working’”. Suffolk said that as part of its discussions with UNISON, the county council agreed to review its grading structure over the course of the next two years, with the intention of having a new structure ready from April 2021. 

Nottingham supplements the updated spine with some locally agreed points (A2, K1 and K2), while Sheffield has some half spine points for existing staff, which are being phased out. Lincolnshire says its pay structure is “anchored” to the NJC spine at 12 points (the maximum of most grades). There are variations too amongst some Greater London authorities.

Grade structures

The LGA’s assessment shortly after the updated spine was applied, according to Pannell, was that 22% of authorities had “unfinished business” on issues such as whether to change some very short or very long grades that had resulted from the assimilation process. 

Some of the key decisions to be made, which can make a really big difference to what and how council staff get paid, are grade length (the number of points from minimum to maximum) and grade overlap (whether or not someone at the bottom of a grade might get paid less than someone at the top of the grade below). 

Getting a handle on how often authorities use grades of different lengths, and especially what levels in their pay structures they are used, is not easy. The overall picture is that grades of 3, 4 or 5 points are the most commonly used (among 110 non-London authorities using the NJC spine, where the number of grades of different lengths is known). 

Table 2: Non-London authorities’ use of grades 
(by number of spinal column points)

Any in use Total grades in use “Favoured” grade length
Single point/spot rate 68 (62%) 218 (14%) 4 (4%)
2-point grades 89 (81%) 216 (13%) 8 (8%)
3-point grades 84 (76%) 278 (17%) 11 (11%)
4-point grades 83 (75%) 338 (21%) 28 (29%)
5-point grades 79 (72%) 271 (17%) 26 (27%)
6-point grades 58 (53%) 179 (11%) 13 (14%)
7-point grades 22 (20%) 46 (3%) 2 (2%)
8-point grades 11 (10%) 17 (1%) 0 (0%)
9-point grades 9 (8%) 32 (2%) 4 (4%)
Any 10+ point grades 5 (5%) 11 (1%) 0 (0%)
Totals 110 authorities 1,606 grades 96 authorities

The figures in table 2 show: 

• three-quarters of authorities or more have at least one grade of two, three or four spinal column points in length; seven out of 10 have a five-point grade; and six out of 10 have a one-point grade or “spot rate”; but longer grades are less and less likely to be used

• adding up all the grades used by these authorities, four-point grades are the most common (21% of all grades), followed by three-point and five-point grades

• among grades “favoured” (used most often) by individual authorities, four-point and five-point grades are preferred by 29% and 27% respectively (authorities with no clear preference are excluded from these figures).

There were four authorities that were making the most use of single spot rates (North East Lincolnshire, Telford & Wrekin, East Riding of Yorkshire and Wakefield). Eight erred towards two-point grades (Cumbria, Knowsley, Bristol, Tameside, Windsor and Maidenhead, Blackpool, Bedford and Nottingham). 

On the other hand, 13 authorities seem to favour six-point grades. Even longer grades, which can provoke concerns about pay equality, are apparently popular with a smaller group of authorities, including seven-point grades in Dorset and Hertfordshire, and nine-point grades in Gloucestershire, Reading, Solihull and Birmingham. 

Where it was possible to tell how grades were arranged half (53) out of 101 of these non-London NJC authorities had no overlapping grades, but 30 had some, while 18 had overlaps among all (or nearly all) of their grades. A fourth approach among all these authorities was to leave “gaps” or un-used spinal column points in their structure. 

It all adds up to a wide variety of grade systems, agreed locally, that determine how the updated national pay spine is used in practice. And that, in turn, has direct consequences for what staff are paid and their chances of progressing.