So we have the chaos, the grotesque chaos of a Conservative council – a Conservative council – banned from undertaking new expenditure and facing being taken over by Government inspectors due to its budget getting out of control. Northamptonshire County Council made the announcement of a “Section 114” notice, banning new expenditure.
Some in the “sector” will doubtless take the development as a kind of vindication. For eight years the warnings against austerity have been made. It has been said that any further reduction in Government grant will cause devastation; that council finances are already at “breaking point”. But after each Budget, overall satisfaction with the provision of local services has actually increased. Finally, after all that time crying wolf the voracious creature is making an appearance in Northamptonshire.
Cllr Heather Smith, the council leader, laments the “perfect storm” of increases in demand for services and reductions in government funding:
“We did warn that we would become unsustainable. We have been warning government from about 2013/14 that, with our financial position, we couldn’t cope with the levels of cuts we were facing. Before Christmas, I wrote to the secretary of state to say we were about to fall over the edge of the cliff because we can’t just increase council tax. We’ve been in what you might call a perfect storm of huge increases in demand for our services at the same time as significant reductions in funding from central government.”
Another interpretation is that the challenges faced in Northamptonshire are not unique. Others have been able to meet them without going bust. The alternative interpretation is that the real explanation is the Council’s financial mismanagement. All seven of the county’s MPs have come to this conclusion. They are all Conservatives – Michael Ellis (Northampton North), Andrew Lewer (Northampton South), Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry), Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire), Philip Hollobone (Kettering), Peter Bone (Wellingborough) and Tom Pursglove (Corby). They have issued the following statement:
“As Conservative MPs for Northamptonshire we have been concerned with how the Cabinet at Northamptonshire County Council have conducted its financial management for a number of years. Indeed, we have had many meetings with this and the previous Secretary of State for MHCLG (former DCLG) throughout that time.
However, whilst we knew things were not right, when we have approached members of the Cabinet at the County Council, we have been repeatedly told, even as recently as December 2017, that the County Council would be able to balance its budget.
It should be noted that the County’s financial problems are self-inflicted.”
The MP’s noted that last year the Local Government Association published “a damning peer review into the ongoing problems within Northamptonshire County Council”.
It’s feedback report stated:
“There is a very short-term focus on solving the financial problems of today.
“There is no financial strategy to deliver a sustainable position for the Council.
“The Council has a poor record of delivering its approved budget.
“Key decisions are not always taken in the understanding of the financial implications, risks and options. This was particularly the case with the ‘Next Generation Council’ programme and its component parts. This has been the subject of an external audit comment with associated recommendations, but we could not find any record of these being addressed.
“Financial information is not presented clearly and transparently… Reporting the budget in the context of the Northamptonshire Group environment is novel in the experience of the peer team and led to a sense of ‘opaqueness’.”
“Decisions taken by the Cabinet need greater transparency.
Some Portfolio holders readily accept the information they are given without systematic and robust challenge. There is a tendency for cabinet members to trust that the relevant individual portfolio holder has challenged proposals.”
The MPs added in their statement:
“We also knew from backbench County Councillors that very little information of any use was being giving to them and they were undermined by the County Council’s Cabinet when trying to scrutinise decisions. We completely understand that position, as we were in a similar one. Indeed, we had concerns that if the leadership of the Council were giving central government the same information they were giving us as MPs and backbench County Councillors, then a completely incorrect picture of the County Council’s finances would be being passed on, which in turn would undermine any legitimate ask for fairer funding.
“Thus we were pleased when the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, decided to commence an independent “Best Value Inspection” of the Authority, as we were quite clear it would quickly ascertain that the findings of the LGA Peer Review were correct and if anything understated, and that action from central government would quickly follow.
“Whilst we do have confidence in the staff of the Authority, who we have dealt with on many levels and constantly deliver good services in tough circumstances – and we have great confidence in the backbench County Councillors, who we believe could be capable of driving the County forward positively, if only they were given the opportunity to do so; we have no confidence in the leadership of the County Council and the majority of the existing Cabinet.
“We would like the Best Value Inspection to conclude as soon as possible and it is our hope that it will lead to the Secretary of State intervening and appointing Commissioners.”
The Council pays £69 million a year on interest on its debt. It has £184 million of short term borrowing and £347 million of long term borrowing. Yet it owns 14 farms. Could it not sell some of its land to provide attractive and much needed housing and also reduce the huge debt mountain?
How effectively is the Council’s £60 million Public Health budget spent? I have written before about the staggering level of waste in this area.
The Council employs 21 staff earning over £100,000 – including four earning more that the Prime Minister. Under the circumstances can we be confident they are providing the rigorous management expertise we would expect from those on such salaries?
In these frugal times should the Council really be paying the salaries for three union officials?
There are many other questions to ask – I wrote a list of 201 of them for the Taxpayers Alliance a few years ago. But the crucial point is the attitude of mind of the Council leadership.
We get the local councillors we deserve. Ellis, Lewer, Heaton-Harris, Leadsom, Hollobone, Bone and Pursglove are to be commended for making their valid criticisms in a robust and open way. Yet they also have a responsibility to talent scout among their constituents for new people to put themselves forward as councillors. Let the cry go up in Corby and Kettering, in Northampton, Wellingborough and Daventry, for Conservatives with the ability and determination to deliver value for money for their county. Let them put themselves forward for election. The need is clear.