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County casts doubt over viability of future unitaries in Northants

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Further doubt has been expressed about the viability of any future unitary authorities in Northamptonshire as it has been announced an improvement board is set to be created to monitor the financial management and governance at the county council.

At next Tuesday’s Northamptonshire CC cabinet meeting members will discuss plans for a public consultation about the future of local government in the county.

The county council is proposing to “work with the district and borough councils of Northamptonshire to develop a combined proposal for a single tier system of local government” in the county.

Government inspector Max Caller proposed one council covering Corby, Kettering, and Wellingborough BCs and East Northamptonshire Council, and another council covering Daventry DC, Northampton BC, and South Northamptonshire Council.

A report to the cabinet meeting, written by interim chief executive Andrew Quincey and leader Matthew Golby (Con), states: “There is the risk that any new unitary authorities will continue to face financial, capacity and capability challenges. The retention of staff skills to support both service-provision and transformation simultaneously may be difficult.”

This comes after Northampton BC leader Jonathan Nunn (Con) warned in an LGC interview that “there is a danger that we’ll create councils that just won’t be financially sustainable”.

The county’s cabinet report said “all councils would need to contribute resources to the consultation on and development of a proposal to the secretary of state and consequent transformation programme, including the possible engagement of external consultants”.

Residents and other interested stakeholders will be given the opportunity to share their views on any future unitary model before a formal proposal is submitted to the secretary of state by the 27 July deadline.

Any changes to the local government structure in Northamptonshire are expected to come into force in April 2020.

Meanwhile, the cabinet will also discuss proposals to form an improvement board to be potentially chaired by someone outside of the county council (see below).

The board is to be made up of county councillors and officers as well as representatives from the borough and district councils, stakeholders and external advisors.

Former communities secretary Sajid Javid had previously said he was “minded to” send commissioners into Northamptonshire CC. He had been due to announce his final decision by Monday but LGC understood that had been delayed until after the local elections even before Mr Javid was moved to the Home Office as part of a mini cabinet reshuffle.

Assuming Mr Javid’s successor James Brokenshire follows through with appointing commissioners, the county council said the improvement board “would work alongside the commissioners”.

It is also proposed the board will remain in place until any new system of unitary governance is established.

Cllr Golby said: “We are committed to making the necessary improvements to our financial management and governance as highlighted by the best value inspection.

“Establishing an independent improvement board is a key part of our journey as it will enable us to ensure the agreed improvements actions are implemented and help to restore public and stakeholder confidence in the council.

“By including representatives from the borough and district councils, it will also help with the transition to unitary government and enable closer working between the current tiers of local government.” 

Proposed indicative composition of the improvement board

  • Chair: a recognised local government figure, possibly external to Northamptonshire CC
  • Northamptonshire leader Matthew Golby (Con)
  • Northamptonshire finance portfolio holder Michael Clarke (Con)
  • Northamptonshire local government transformation portfolio holder Andy Mercer (Con)
  • Northamptonshire opposition leader Bob Scott (Lab)
  • Northamptonshire Liberal Democrat group leader Chris Stanbra
  • A backbench Conservative councillor
  • Northamptonshire interim chief executive Andrew Quincey
  • Northamptonshire director of finance Mark McLaughlin
  • ”Two nominated representatives from the district and borough councils”
  • A peer chief executive
  • A peer chief finance officer
  • Local Government Association Conservative and Labour councillor peers
  • A local MP
  • Between two and four further stakeholders from partner organisations or the voluntary sector (for example health, local business, care charity)

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