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Ministers should learn from Northants: history is unkind on leaders who fail to lead

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The revelation of the scale of Northamptonshire CC’s financial crisis shows how its previous regime was asleep on the job.

Rare evidence of anyone being awake emerged this week in the form of a 2015 letter from finance director Matt Bowmer to the then chief executive Paul Blantern. The finance director said he sought to impose a section 114 notice amid what was even then a “significant financial crisis”. He also attacked the “seemingly defensive and non-compliant behaviour of the management team”. Alas his stark warning was not heeded.

By avoiding difficult decisions the council proceeded to sleepwalk over the cliff edge. Only in February this year was the (first) s114 finally issued. No one wants to close children’s centres or libraries, or to cut staffing, but in local government if you fail to live within your means you face the consequences. Thus Northamptonshire’s new management must tackle a budget shortfall of £60m-£70m this financial year. This will inevitably have a far more devastating impact on local services, residents and council staff than had the council been decisive earlier.

In an LGC interview, lead commissioner Tony McArdle says he is unable to set a timescale on when the council’s books will be balanced. This raises the prospect of the council (a low-tax Conservative flagship, remember) becoming the first authority since Militant’s 1980s heyday to fail to set a balanced budget (although it is surely the case Northamptonshire’s 2017-18 budget was only notionally, if at all, balanced).

If Northamptonshire stands as a doomed landmark of local government incompetence, one does not have to search far to see a similar level of ineptitude elsewhere.

Another once noble institution is blighted by indecision and repeatedly buries its head in the sand rather than tackle a crisis. We refer, of course, to the government, which has set the nation’s tiller firmly on course for the rocks of Brexit. 

Local government is not alone in the public sector in needing clear, decisive action now but ministers show little inclination to cease bickering about EU withdrawal for long enough to appreciate the scale of councils’ problems.

The Local Government Association intensified its campaign for action this week by launching its own social care ‘green paper’, examining how tax rises could increase care provision. This is amid growing expectations the real social care green paper (now being overseen by its third minister in under a year) will be a damp squib.

Meanwhile, the council finance measures sneaked out as MPs went on recess suggests broader local government finance will continue to be dominated by sticking plaster approaches – 3% council tax rises help some more than others. And an anticipated social housing green paper failed to materialise.

The centre has created a culture in which the local has to seek its permission to function but it has now derogated from its responsibility to govern. A more unsatisfactory system is hard to contemplate. The government should learn from Northamptonshire that history is not kind to leaders who fail to lead.

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