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Time is running out for Northants, in more ways than one

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

“Time is running out for Northamptonshire CC…”

As far as peer reviews go, this one doesn’t take long to get going. And even though it was written almost half a year ago, it was certainly prophetic.

Despite being “focused on short-term ‘survival’” Northamptonshire’s “financial situation looks very serious” after 2018-19, the explosive Local Government Association review warned.

As it happened the financial situation has become so serious that even short-term ‘survival’ is in doubt.

The fact Northamptonshire has become the first council to issue a section 114 notice in almost two decades will not have come as a surprise to many in the sector - rumours had abound for years that the county was in trouble. That doesn’t make it any less shocking, though.

Local Labour leaders who gathered for a conference in Nottingham at the weekend battled with conflicting emotions, knowing full well that what has befallen Northamptonshire’s Conservative leadership could easily have happened to them or any of their colleagues.

The budget pressures combined with an increasing demand on children’s and adults’ social care services have provided a toxic cocktail for top-tier councils. Northamptonshire’s financial plight has, if nothing else, come at a (dare we say it?) convenient time for other councils who are hoping to squeeze more money out of the government ahead of tomorrow’s final finance settlement. Indeed, the County Councils Network has today piled further pressure on the government which is already trying to appease a group of MPs threatening to rebel unless more money can be found for social care services in rural areas.

There is certainly some irony that after years of reductions to the revenue support grant, instigated by the Conservatives, a bunch of Tory backbenchers are now local government’s greatest hope of getting more money for services in the short-term if nothing else.

The fact a council has finally buckled under the budgetary pressures is not that much of a shock – perhaps looking back it’s more of a surprise it has taken almost a decade of swingeing cuts for it to have happened; a testament to the sector’s resilience and ability to innovate in the face of adversity.

But the fact one council has now raised the white flag perhaps makes it all the more probable that others will follow – Northamptonshire’s finances are in a parlous state but they are far from unique. Indeed, East Sussex CC’s chief executive Becky Shaw has fired a warned shot that her council will be left with “a minimum service offer” by 2020-21 without further resources from the government.

It was interesting to note on Friday evening how Sajid Javid found time to tweet about Jacob Rees-Mogg getting pushed and shoved in Bristol, and twisted the knife into Labour over the way its treated Haringey LBC’s Claire Kober but the housing and communities secretary offered no comment on Northamptonshire’s dramatic section 114 submission.

One has to wonder whether he would have stayed silent had a Labour-led council mismanaged its finances in a similar way.

In all fairness Mr Javid recently sent an inspector into Northamptonshire, although it would appear it might be a bit too late for all of that.

But as LGC’s editor Nick Golding pointed out on Twitter, that inspector is Max Caller – former chair of the Boundary Commission and a man not afraid of a bit of reorganisation. Mr Golding speculated Mr Javid could make an example of Northamptonshire by “splitting it up into new unitaries”.

The debate about reorganisation is not new in Northamptonshire. In an interview with LGC in December 2016 the county’s leader Heather Smith (Con) insisted her authority’s survival was not dependent on restructuring happening. Looking at the evidence, one has to question whether that is true.

Two weeks ago Mr Javid told MPs “I expect the number [of unitary councils] to be higher in five years’ time”, sparking yet another existential crisis in two-tier areas. Having given tacit approval to proposals to turn nine councils into two unitaries in Dorset, Mr Javid might well find he is “minded to” approve a reorganisation of local government in a part of the East Midlands in the not-too-distant future too.

As things stand it really does look like time is running out for Northamptonshire, one way or another.

David Paine, acting news editor

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