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Commissioner control warning at Northants amid £180m deficit fears

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Commissioners could take full control of Northamptonshire CC amid fears the council’s deficit could rise to £180m by 2021.

The leader of Northamptonshire denied allegations decisions had already been made on extensive service cuts, reducing provision to statutory services only, at an extraordinary meeting of full council last night.

There was strong criticism of historic decisions, particularly over the extensive use of outsourcing in the early 2000s, as members discussed “priority areas of spend” outlined in a discussion paper. The council is seeking to find up to £70m savings on a net revenue budget of £441m this year alone.

While no vote was held on the paper put before full council last night, leader Matthew Golby (Con) acknowledged the “mood of the room”, described by Liberal Democrat group leader Chris Stanbra as not “very favourable”.

In response to numerous statements against cuts to services Cllr Golby said: “The council has still got to live within our means, this is something we’ve not done before.”

LGC reported last week how cuts to services for vulnerable children, young people and adults are all being mooted as the county council seeks to find between £60m and £70m of in-year savings. An “equally stark” forecast for next year has also been predicted with an estimation that a further £54m savings will be required in 2019-20.

A new report to go before full council on 9 August said this year’s savings figure included “an estimated carried forward unfunded deficit in the region of £34m from 2017-18”. It added: “Coupled with difficulties in the 2018-19 budget of a further £30m means that radical action needs to be taken in this current and future financial years to reduce spending. If appropriate action is not taken the deficit could realistically increase to circa £180m by March 2021.”

The paper later warned there is a red (high risk) that “the council’s deficit will continue to rise and the commissioners will be forced to take control of the council.”

Northamptonshire already has two commissioners. Former Lincolnshire CC chief executive Tony McArdle and former deputy chief executive of Leicestershire CC Brian Roberts are already overseeing governance and scrutiny, the appointment of statutory officers, and strategic financial management. They are due to remain in place until 31 March 2021.

Last night Cllr Golby noted previous comments from “the ombudsman” against the council. In an interview with LGC in March, local government ombudsman Michael King said past responses to adjudications from Northamptonshire’s senior management team had been “totally out of order” as they were “defensive” and questioned recommendations. Cllr Goldby said the ombudsman’s comments were “frankly embarrassing”, and added the underlying problems which led to those verdicts were a “matter of culture” which “has to change”. 

Last night’s meeting was called after Northamptonshire’s director of finance issued a second section 114 notice on 24 July, curtailing any additional expenditure.

In a statement released on Thursday, a spokesperson for the council announced a “proposed action plan” outlining “radical service reductions and efficiencies” across all areas of the council’s service delivery, including staff redundancies.

The council’s plan includes a new financial approval process for spending in adult and children’s services, including approval for all expenditure exceeding £1,000.

The council will also discuss whether to introduce a “strategic co-ordinating group” to “centralise decision-making” as well as a “transformation task force” to “identify cost reductions” in line with the spending priorities agreed on Wednesday.

Cllr Golby said: “These are incredibly challenging times for the council but I am committed to ensuring we deliver those core services within the money we have available.”

The recommendations for future service delivery will be discussed further at the next full council meeting on 9 August.

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