The Northamptonshire councils blame game

Are Northamptonshire’s county, borough and district councils complete failures or simply unfortunate victims of the Government’s austerity measures resulting in a lack of desperately–needed funds to deliver essential services that we, the citizens, expect?

This was the essential question put to over 70 residents from across the county at the recent BBC Radio-led ‘Council Takeover’ event, held at the Guildhall in Northampton.

Billed as an opportunity to temporarily remove politicians from the equation and bring together a balance of public opinion on the next steps to secure the town and county’s future, the results were mixed and passionately-voiced.

A little context: In March 2018 a government-commissioned report recommended that NCC and the seven other district and borough councils should be closed down.

The report, ordered by the then Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid, concluded that ‘living within budget constraints is not part of the culture’ of the County Council. The authority had become the first in nearly 20 years to impose emergency spending controls and subsequently agreed to a further £40-million in budget cuts.

Back at the Council Takeover differing views on this state of affairs and solutions to NCC’s public humiliation as the first county council forced to declare bankruptcy in over 20 years were in plentiful supply, as was the recognition that others will surely follow in the not-too-distant future.

One local participant, ‘Sharon,’ said: “We’re trying to decide on a priority, but all of the issues we’re discussing here are priorities. It’s not so much about the structure of the councils, it’s more about finding out where the waste is.”

Indeed, taking money from one area of key investment to prop up another vital resource felt like arguing over the rules and results of musical chairs. Consider for a moment where English councils currently focus their collective £44 billion plus spending power, which over 2017-18 looks like this:

- Adult social care (£15.6bn)

- Children's social care (£8bn)

- Environmental services including waste collection, recycling and street maintenance, cremation and burials, crime reduction and community safety (£5bn)

- Transport and highways (£4.2bn)

- Central services including courts (£3bn)

- Cultural services like libraries (£2.2bn)

- Fire services (£2.1bn)

- Some elements of housing (£1.5bn)

- Planning and development (£1.1bn)

Schools, the majority of policing budgets and public health are funded by separate pots of money from central government and then administered by councils, which have very little discretion over how they spend them.

None of these sound like services that can easily be done away with. Given NCC’s largest slice of spending mirrors national figures and is devoted to adult and children’s social care services, just how could fresh cuts be made and where should a refocus of investment be applied?

Among the many opinions offered by the public at the Council Takeover, greater centralised decision-making was suggested as being vital, while others argued for a stronger emphasis on local community-based democracy.

Education was a key priority for some, set against the fortunes of a seemingly unrecoverable town centre that was never far from the heart of the debate. Still more called for a focus on other county towns, while help was begged to support woefully underfunded rural areas.

What became increasingly clear from these representative residents is just how significantly the financial hardships facing Northamptonshire’s councils has damaged public trust in local leadership as frustration with the outcomes of political decision-making boils over.

Speaking on council management and accountability Steve, a Northampton resident, said: “Over the last 10 years the County Council has made hare-brained decisions in a desperate attempt to balance the budget. There’s been no effective scrutiny of their actions and that’s why they’ve run out of money. This needs to change.”

Based on the strength of feeling displayed few if any decision-makers allied with the councils emerged unscathed from this debate. This included the county’s MPs who some felt had done everything possible to disassociate themselves from the local impacts of Government cuts while blaming councillors for the fallout.

Looking at what might happen to the future structure of our councils, those in attendance were asked to consider council restructure options to improve decision-making, accountability and value. First up was the idea of retaining the status quo with a single ‘unitary’ county council. Some thought this would minimise bureaucratic overspend and avoid a complex resources split.

Another possibility put forward – and reportedly the most popular option – was the introduction of two unitary authorities - one in the north covering Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough, and East Northamptonshire; and a west Northamptonshire authority consisting of Daventry, South Northants and Northampton.

This was followed by the idea of three unitary authorities for Northampton; East Northamptonshire, and Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough, and a final suggestion of seven unitary authorities for each individual borough and district.

The benefits of all were hypothesised as linking greater local accountability into more efficient, integrated services.

While all of this made for an interesting discussion, the Government’s inspectors have apparently stated that a new start for Northamptonshire will be best achieved by the creation of two new Unitary Councils to reflect the “established economic drivers of the area and are each of a size which would make them viable.” This strongly suggests this is what we’re getting.

Further to this change The Deloitte report for Northamptonshire’s district and borough councils notes that under any new structure “wider transformation of public services is unquestionably required to ensure long-term financial viability because of the ongoing pressure on social care services.” It adds that “without transformation and resources being committed to social care services none of the unitary options considered in this report are likely to be financially viable.” The eventual decision it seems will be all about priorities.

The Council Takeover delivered on its promise to offer people a voice. Those present stated an opinion that recent service delivery failures and the future of Northamptonshire came down to three essential issues – funding, leadership and accountability.

It’s difficult to shake off the feeling that the current public focus on the ‘failures’ of our local councils’ actions is something of a distraction from bigger issues. For years we’ve been told that deep cuts are the only way to save Britain’s economy, but Northamptonshire councils outsourced services and overspent on reserves because that’s what they were told to do.

Consider the voting record of Northamptonshire’s MPs who, while condemning local cuts and blaming councillors for mismanagement, have primarily voted in Westminster for sharp reductions in local government budgets.

If cuts really are the answer then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party following the 2017 General Election is the most glaring exception to this rule. It certainly suggests the ‘Magic Money Tree’ is something that Northamptonshire could sorely use a piece of to aid its recovery.