The weekend saw the very well documented local problem of Northamptonshire County Council’s financial woes thrust into national news after the Council issued a Section 114 notice on Friday. Effectively this banned all new spending with in the Council, apart from critical statutory services such as adult social care and children’s services.
The move, which hasn’t happened to a UK Council in nearly 20 years, was unprecedented and shows just how serious the budgetary issues at the County Council are. It effectively means the Council doubts its ability to set a balanced budget for this financial year- something by law they are required to do.
In response Northampton’s Labour parliamentary candidates Cllr Gareth Eales and Sally Keeble called on the Secretary of State to take immediate control of the Council by sending in Government Commissioners. This was soon followed by the County’s sitting 7 MP’s to call for the same, adding that they had lost confidence in the Leadership and the Cabinet should resign.
All of this highlights the critical nature of the situation and while I understand the call to take action, I am not personally convinced that Commissioners would be a good thing for the people of the County.
Leader of NCC, Cllr Heather Smith, has pledged to fight on saying that the Council’s issues are down to Government funding & not mismanagement.
What would Commissioner Take over mean?
Essentially the Government would take direct temporary control of the County Council. The Cabinet would be dissolved and all decision making powers would be taken away from local control. Effectively their aim would be protect statutory services and ensure that the Council delivered a balanced budget going forward.
I believe this could have a devastating effect, as the Commissioners would simply look at the maths and in turn non-statutory services such as libraries, local grants and children’s centres would all be considered expendable. There would be no local input or consultation from Local Councillors or members of the public. Any demonstrations or lobbying to the Council would fall on death ears. Their only priority would be protecting the statutory services and balancing the budget.
Ultimately it is clear there is no easy solution to the current situation and it’s very possible that Commissioners might be forced upon the Council regardless but I’m not sure calling for them is wise. I don’t fully agree with some of the MP’s who say that this issue is solely down to poor Leadership and mismanagement at NCC. Yes, of course the leadership need to accept their role in this, but the reality is Northamptonshire has been desperately underfunded in comparison to other council’s for years and this situation combined with the increased demand on services has culminated in what we see today.
The County Council is currently under government inspection and this report will soon ascertain if poor management is the reason for the county’s current financial predicament but regardless of the outcome there is no doubt that Northamptonshire is desperate for fairer funding. This also brings the issue of Local Government reform and Unitary Council back to the front of the agenda. Many now see this as being inevitable, as do I, but it’s important to remember that without a better funding model this alone will not solve the challenges we face.
To see more about how Northamptonshire is under funded in comparison to other regions see the link below: