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Northampton County Council goes bust

PETER FROST reports from Northamptonshire, where Tory MPs are blaming the Tory council for the financial collapse of the entire county

ALL seven of Northamptonshire’s Tory MPs have released a statement saying they have no faith in the Tory administration of Northampton County Council (NCC).

In response, leader of the council Councillor Heather Smith told BBC Look East that it had warned the government as early as 2013-14 that the level of funding was unsustainable.

The MPs, who include several senior government ministers, said the local Tory administration was to blame, not the government.

It was a far from edifying sight to see Tory ministers, MPs and NCC councillors squabbling over just who within the Tory Party was to blame for the total financial breakdown of the county council’s finances.   

The MPs are Leader of the House of Parliament Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire), Michael Ellis (Northampton North), Andrew Lewer (Northampton South), Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry), Philip Hollobone (Kettering), Peter Bone (Wellingborough) and Tom Pursglove (Corby).

Their highly critical statement said that the MPs wanted the government to appoint commissioners to take over the running of the council once the current, ongoing inspection was complete.

Then last Friday at 10 to five in the evening, just as many workers were about to leave for home, NCC quietly issued a section 114 notice — the nearest thing to bankruptcy for a local authority, which by law are not allowed to actually declare themselves bankrupt.

Most staff heard the news by email that the NCC had effectively gone bust. It would lead to a most stressful weekend for the harassed staff. Morale was already at rock-bottom and this has made it much worse.

The council spent £53 million on its new headquarters at One Angel Square. The new building only opened last October but already the council has tried to set up a sell-and-lease-back deal but nobody seems to want to buy.

Most staff believe the building is totally unsuitable for purpose.

The hot-desk culture means that staff who need to conduct sensitive and confidential meetings — essential when you are dealing with abused and threatened children — need to book a room.

Add to that the fact that the NCC has over 500 children and adults in need of support but with no allocated social worker.

This and massive case loads, along with the lack of managers and rapid staff turnover, make giving service users decent treatment impossible.  

At the new headquarters the only parking is for senior managers and car-sharers. Social workers have to use the park-and-ride or the local Morrisons supermarket and pay their own parking fees and fines.

The surprise for local people is not so much that the county council went bust but that it took so long.

The county has been stripping back its budget for years. Even in 2014 it warned that meeting the demands of another five years of cuts was getting towards the impossible.

Smith said the council received significantly less in government funds than other authorities and this had been made known to Whitehall.

Smith said the county council had brought in a section 114 notice to ban new expenditure. She said it was caused by the perfect storm of increases in demand for services and constant cuts in government funding.

“We did warn that the county council would become unsustainable,” she said. “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.”

Northamptonshire is the first town or county hall to be brought down by austerity, but it may not be the last. Nick Golding, editor of the Local Government Chronicle, has reported that as many as 10 other councils could soon take section 114 measures similar to those implemented in Northamptonshire.

“Council spending power has fallen by almost half this decade; it’s been a really, really difficult time for councils and there haven’t been any sensible conversations about how you can provide the funding for social care and children’s services, in particular, in the years to come,” he said.

Council staff have been told that jobs are safe, that they will be paid and there is no immediate threat to pensions. Time will tell if that is true. The bigger danger is that councils will only provide an absolute bare minimum of public services for years to come.

The council’s leader has said she understands potholes will still be fixed as that is an existing contract that will be honoured. It seems likely that libraries, schools and children’s centres will stay open at least for now.

However there will be no new deals, no new spending, on anything other than services legally required to keep vulnerable people safe.

That, it seems, is the continuing tragic story of life in Tory austerity Britain.

This is the first section 114 notice issued in about 20 years but already experts like Professor Tony Travers from the London School of Economics are forecasting others could follow.

He said: “I think there are others that are quite close to Northamptonshire’s position and, with so-called austerity continuing into the next decade, I would be amazed if Northamptonshire was the only council to get into these circumstances.”

At Labour’s local government conference in Nottingham, Jeremy Corbyn commented on the situation in Northamptonshire and the country more widely: “Austerity is unleashing chaos across our country, squeezing our local authorities and putting jobs, and the vital services they deliver, at risk.”

Danielle Stone, leader of Northampton Borough Council’s Labour group, told the Morning Star about the continuing anger and opposition to Tory austerity from Labour at various levels throughout the county.

“We are angry that the seven Tory MPs have never fought for the people of the county. Labour has been challenging Tory mismanagement over the last seven years. We see the Tory government as 70 per cent responsible and Tory county mismanagement 30 per cent.

“What is absolutely certain is that 100 per cent of the blame lies with the Tories and their cruel, greedy and short-sighted austerity policies,” she concluded.

As we went to press last night the NCC Tory cabinet was still meeting. It confirmed that it was still seeking to sell and lease back the £53m headquarters. In addition it is promising another £30m of cuts to services.

Members of the public attending the meeting called for the cabinet to resign. Anjona Roy, the chief executive of Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council, said now, when more than ever transparency and scrutiny were important, the cabinet had decided to stop webcasting meetings. This was the first not to be broadcast.

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