FIFE is suffering from a dearth of environmental health workers that threatens to undermine its ability to monitor takeaways, restaurants and noisy neighbours.

Councillors heard last week that the service is 16 staff short despite three years of trying to fill the positions.

Environmental health officers (EHOs) are responsible for assessing Kingdom eateries to ensure they meet national food hygiene standards.

They also carry out health and safety inspections in Fife workplaces, inspect licensed premises – from pubs to tattoo parlours – and investigate reports of noise, vibration, smells and pests in homes.

More recently, they have been responsible for issuing export health certificates to food businesses sending food into the European Union, and have incorporated the latest COVID guidance into local regulations as it has evolved.

Nigel Kerr, head of protective services, says the profession is short of new-starts and students.

The service is unable to train large numbers of newcomers because it cut back on its own training schemes some years ago.

The job itself requires a degree followed by 48 weeks of professional training and a formal exam, controlled by the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland as gatekeeper.

Mr Kerr said: “I’m confident in the medium term we’ll get a larger number of students coming through the profession.

“The number of officers I require in Fife are mandated on legislative requirements.”

Some feel the deficit in EHOs in Fife may be related to pay. The council’s typical EHO wage is towards the lower end of the scale when compared to other local authorities in Scotland, with officers at one council being paid more than £7,000 more to do the same job.

Labour Kirkcaldy North councillor Neil Crooks wants to see the wage for an EHO rise to drive recruitment – but he was warned this would lead to disgruntlement in other council departments.

Cllr Crooks said: “There’s a £7,000 difference between where Fife is and where the top payment is. That’s £4 an hour, which is a staggering amount.”

However, Labour’s Lochgelly, Cardenden and Benarty representative Linda Erskine added: “I get what people are saying about salaries but we cannot undermine the single status evaluation scheme (the banded grading system used to determine the salary of public sector jobs).

“If we sort this with EHOs we will be creating potential unequal pay claims across the council.”

The solution may lie elsewhere, given that the average age of an EHO in Fife is somewhere around 50 and there are none under the age of 35.

From next month, Fife will be one of 10 local authorities accepting students from the University of the West of Scotland to provide training in environmental health – with the potential to retain graduates once they complete their studies.

Mr Kerr added: “We need to look at things like modern apprenticeships but we’re working closely with Fife College, trying to get people in through the HNC, HND courses.

“In order to meet the council’s statutory responsibilities, it is vital that we review staffing measures, look at the barriers to recruitment, and take cognisance of the workforce profile and the need for robust succession planning.”

Following a suggestion from Lib Dem convener Tim Brett, Fife’s environment, finance and communities scrutiny committee agreed to ask for a review of staffing levels within environmental health and to make its concerns about the department clear to Fife Council’s administration.

Cllr Ross Vettraino, environment convener on the administration, said the scale of the work EHOs do could not be underestimated – and suggested that efforts be made to do more inside the council rather than waiting for graduates.

“There are over 9,000 premises in Fife that EHOs must ensure are following their duty of care,” he said.

“That alone would take eight officers to do the job properly and even then we are bereft of officers for even more crucial tasks, so we’ve got a real problem here.

“This is not new in Fife. We need to address this, and we need to address this now: 48 weeks of academic training is good but it’s not nearly as good as growing our own. We should be looking at half a dozen student EHOs, not just one.

“It takes time but it will pay off in the long run.”