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Passing the buck (but not the budget) in Northamptonshire

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LGC’s commentary on today’s full council meeting at Northamptonshire CC.

Chief executive: “The decision to issue a section 114 notice was not taken lightly…”

Member of the public: “RESIGN!”

As far as the beginning to a full council meeting goes, Northamptonshire CC’s was never likely to start quietly.

While generally there was a sombre mood during today’s meeting, angry emotions simmered and occasionally bubbled over resulting in irregular outbursts from both councillors in the chamber and onlookers in the public gallery.

Twenty days on from when Northamptonshire put an immediate stop to any additional spending amid concerns about its ability to set a lawful budget in 2018-19, phrases such as “fantasy figures”, “untold embarrassment”, and “passing the buck” were all aired during the meeting that lasted more than two and a half hours.

Throughout fingers were pointed metaphorically and literally around the chamber (and at others like the government, local MPs, and former officers) as councillors and residents sought to lay/deflect blame for the county council’s financial mess.

LGC reported this week that auditor KPMG – which also came in for criticism during today’s meeting for not raising red flags sooner – had issued an advisory notice warning Northamptonshire it was not in a position to set a lawful budget today. 

The ruling Conservative group was due to be in deep discussions this afternoon to devise even more cost-cutting measures, while leader Heather Smith (Con) said senior officers are set to work through the weekend in a bid to balance the budget.

The clock is ticking.

The latest the budget can be legally set is 11 March while a decision on council tax needs to be made by 1 March at the latest to ensure all of the necessary processes can be implemented in good time.

While councillors were told it is “not illegal” to set a budget late, they were warned there are legal and financial consequences – ones this cash-strapped council can ill afford – if there is a delay.

Another meeting of full council is due to take place next Wednesday, with a cabinet meeting the day before.

“If you’re making a decision on a [revised] budget next week where’s the opportunity for the public to make their voices heard?” asked Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council’s chief executive Anjona Roy, who live streamed the whole meeting on Facebook because the council’s webcasting contract came to an end earlier this month and spending restrictions meant the rights could not be renewed.

In a report from Northamptonshire’s chief finance officer Mark McLaughlin he warned (in case it was not already apparent) that the county council “faces a financial situation… of a serious nature” and added: “This is a situation that cannot simply be left for officers to improvise solutions. The members of the council must take responsibility.”

While control over finances has “improved” in 2017-18, Mr McLaughlin’s report said that “will require further attention and rigour and I have accepted this is a personal priority”. But in a warning to councillors he said: “However the demonstration of financial discipline is something that must be led by decision makers – i.e. the members of the county council and in the current circumstances this should begin with the acceptance of the maximum number of realistic savings options, including those which have proved controversial or unpopular during the consultation process since the draft budget.”

Blame has been laid at the door of former chief executive Paul Blantern (less so, it has to be said, at that of his successor Damon Lawrenson), former leader Jim Harker (Con) and, of course, the current leadership.

Cllr Smith has up to now resisted numerous calls to resign, possibly helped by the fact that nobody else would surely want to take on the poisoned chalice. However, Politics.co.uk journalist Natalie Bloomer reported this week that the local Conservative group are to hold an emergency meeting next Tuesday evening to discuss and vote on a proposed motion of no confidence in Cllr Smith.

That’s just the sort of thing this council could do without ahead of a crunch budget meeting the following day.

Towards the end of today’s meeting Northamptonshire’s cabinet member for finances and resources Robin Brown (Con) questioned if everyone understood the seriousness of the problem.

It is concerning to think that even after all of the events these past few weeks, and almost three hours of damning discussion today about the state of the county council’s financial position, there might still be people out there who do not get it.

Cllr Smith, who did eventually “accept there have been mistakes made in the past and for that I apologise”, warned councillors they are “going to have to behave as if we are commissioners” over the next few days and take some “decisions that will not sit comfortably with us”.

Forget the finger pointing and political point scoring, now is the time everyone involved took some responsibility for the financial farce Northamptonshire faces.

Alas it all feels too little, too late.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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