The interim chief executive of Northamptonshire CC has issued a robust response to the damning inspection report into the county.
In an exclusive interview with LGC, Damon Lawrenson claimed government inspector Max Caller’s report contained a number of “factual inaccuracies” and defended his role in trying to get a “grip” on the county’s finances.
Meanwhile, Mr Lawrenson has tacitly backed proposals for reorganisation.
Mr Caller’s inspection team was “struck by the number of councillors” who were “refused information when they sought to ask questions” including in relation to proposals to sell the county’s £53m headquarters.
Mr Lawrenson said it was “totally wrong” to say there was no appraisal of the sale and that it had “the most diligence you can imagine”.
“The bottom line is there are some factual inaccuracies in the report and that’s one of them,” he said.
While he accepted the report he said it was “disappointing it didn’t reflect the improvement journey we’re on”.
Mr Caller’s report said that since 2013 Northamptonshire had “lost tight budgetary control and appeared to abandon strong and effective budget setting scrutiny”.
Mr Lawrenson said “that wasn’t true” and said it was “contradictory” to the Local Government Association’s peer review from September 2017 which he described as being “very complimentary of the financial control and grip I put in place”.
However, Mr Lawrenson, formerly interim group director of finance at the county, said there could have been “greater transparency and communication on the budget process” and that the scrutiny function could have been “strengthened”.
“On reflection, could we have made more challenging budget proposals in the years gone by? Yes,” he said.
Mr Caller’s report noted Mr Lawrenson was abroad when the section 114 notice was issued which left “the leadership of the organisation in something of a limbo” during a “crucial” period.
While discussions over the county’s finances had been ongoing Mr Lawrenson said he had no knowledge the s114 notice would be issued before he went away.
The next generation model was cited by Mr Caller as a key reason behind the county’s financial troubles as there had “never been any hard edged business plan or justification to support these proposals”.
Mr Lawrenson said the model was implemented at “just the wrong time” as it required investment when austerity was beginning to bite. He said he has since “disbanded” the model.
A key recommendation in Mr Caller’s report is to create two unitaries out of the county’s eight councils.
While Mr Lawrenson said two unitary authorities is “deliverable and a much better, more efficient way of delivering local government” he also said “one county [unitary] is the most optimum” model.
Mr Lawrenson cited the National Audit Office’s report into the sustainability of councils as evidence that the “whole sector needs help for 2019-20” and added: “A significant number of authorities will face extremely challenging times and may follow Northamptonshire’s plight in 2019-20.”