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Luxuries spend in Northants will feed sense of injustice

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

There was no cause for celebration at the announcement by leaders in Northamptonshire on Friday that they had agreed to back the two-unitary option for the county proposed by government-appointed inspector Max Caller earlier this year.

The tone of the report published by the eight councils outlining the plan reflected the ongoing frustration and anger that it had come to this, with councils forced to accept their demise due to the catastrophic failings of others.

With a strong sense of weary resignation, the report said the agreement was made “not out of positive ambition for this radical structural change, but instead out of a pragmatic and responsible approach to the government’s clearly signalled direction of travel.”

In a statement, South Northamptonshire Council leader Ian McCord (Con) put it more bluntly, and likely reflecting the sentiments of his counterparts, said: “Let me make it crystal clear– I am beyond angry that we have been bounced into this position.

“My heart wants desperately to join the protests against this way forward, but my head recognises that something has to be done.”

News today published by the Northamptonshire Telegraph that Northamptonshire CC’s wholly-owned company NEA Properties, one entity in a complex structure of service delivery vehicles constituting the doomed ‘next generation’ model, had been playing fast and loose with the public purse will further compound already well-established exasperation.

As the council’s serious financial difficulties were emerging in 2015, NEA reportedly splashed out on luxuries from the £820,000 proceeds of the sale of units to the University of Northampton.

While £700,000 was said to have returned to council funds, some of the money which remained with NEA was spent in a way usually associated with private property magnates, rather than a publicly-owned company designed to act for the greater good. 

A total of £80,000 was spent with Northampton Saints rugby club, including the cost of a stadium hospitality box; £3,624 on a flypast at a memorial event; £4,500 on a marquee and £2,700 on a “heritage dinner”.

While the scale of the financial challenges at Northamptonshire renders these sums seriously small fry, these extravagancies came months before the council’s section 151 officer threatened to issue a section 114 notice unless “effective financial management arrangements” replaced “defensive and non-compliant behaviour”.

In what will be a potent symbol for the public of the lack of effective leadership and scrutiny at the council, the questionable operations of NEA appear to have continued unabated.

A confidential report in December last year by Northamptonshire’s shared service provider LGSS reminded senior managers that NEA was “not exempt from public sector transparency requirements nor the need to ensure NCC interests are properly protected”, with declarations of hospitality arising from the company’s functions “not evident”.

As Mr Bowmer’s dire warnings of financial collapse were seemingly ignored by those operating in a culture of corroded financial management, the complacency over the operations of NEA are not surprising.

However, the evidence that increasingly scarce resources were being squandered to indulge a few will not only fuel the fury at the situation local government in the county finds itself in, but will act as a powerful symbol of injustice which will not be soon forgotten.

As work continues to somehow manouvre Northamptonshire into a functioning financial position and lay the foundations for future sustainablity, gaining back the trust of the public, regardless of what structure is put in place, will also be a serious, long-term challenge. 

And the sense of injustice that arises from today’s revelations will inevitably serve as a reminder to other councils that have taken a more commercial path: the sort of largesse seen in some parts of the private sector is unacceptable in a publicly-owned company.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter   

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