Years of mismanagement and cuts to local authority funding have placed the Tory-run Northamptonshire county council in a near-untenable position as it scrambles to provide services to vulnerable children and adults.
The council will convene tonight (August 1) for an unprecedented meeting to hold emergency talks over how it will make £70m in savings that it will be legally required to make by next March.
The council has already declared insolvency; it has imposed emergency spending controls twice in the last six months alone. Known as a section 114, the order to ban all new spending has only been made twice before in the UK since 1988.
Government-appointed commissioners were sent in to oversee the cash-strapped council’s finances since February.
Northamptonshire’s Tory leader Matthew Golby said that council services would be reduced to the very bare minimum – what he called a ‘core offer’ – to meet its statutory duties.
But the massive scale of the savings that the council must make means that the authority may fail to maintain minimum levels of vital services, such as those for vulnerable adults and children at risk. The council is already facing a legal challenge after it shut or planned to sell off 21 of its 36 libraries. Significant job cuts are expected as well.
Northamptonshire’s finance director Mark McLoughlin slammed poor management decisions made over the last several years, including mismanagement of council reserves and capital receipts, employing accounting tricks and knowingly adopting impossible savings measures.
McLoughlin warned the council “will have to go beyond cuts to staff pay and staff numbers to include all services, including those to, and in respect of, vulnerable children, young people and adults.”
Northamptonshire’s emergency financial talks this evening come just months after it was revealed that the council’s former chief executive Dr Paul Blantern had received a £95,000 pay-out after he quit last October. Auditor KPMG said it would be reviewing the pay-out and the “circumstances surrounding his departure”.
The Tory-run council has long styled itself as a testing ground for Conservative ideas on running local government in the 21st century – in 2014, Blatern described his vision as one of running the council “almost like a PLC”, with direct services slashed and privatised and council tax kept low.
While Northamptonshire’s financial woes are what London School of Economics professor Tony Travers described as “near as possible to without parallel in modern times”, the council isn’t the only one facing drastic financial problems.
The National Audit Office (NAO) warned in a report in March that up to 15 English councils could go the way of Northamptonshire as many are raiding their cash reserves to cope with cuts and increased demand on their services as the population ages.
The NAO cautioned that using reserves to cope budget cuts was not financially viable in the long term.
Unite national officer for local government Jim Kennedy slammed both local Tory government mismanagement as well as the central Tory government’s austerity agenda that’s hit the most vulnerable the hardest.
“It is a stain on the management of Northampton County Council that it should find itself in such a financial shambles and where those who are going to suffer most are vulnerable adults and children who rely on this authority’s care services,” he said.
“However, we don’t believe that Northamptonshire is the only council struggling to make ends meet and fulfil its statutory duties,” Kennedy added. “The blame for the financial crisis facing local government across England and Wales can be laid at the door of the Tory government which, since 2010, has made slashing council spending a key target of its harsh austerity agenda.”