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Brokenshire warned over county's 'questionable' savings plan

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The leaders of Northamptonshire’s seven district councils have written to the housing and communities secretary to warn of their concerns over the county council’s stabilisation plan.

In a joint letter to James Brokenshire, a copy of which has been seen by LGC, the leaders said the plan would not produce ongoing benefits and would likely push many of the costs onto the districts.

The county council is seeking to balance its books for the current financial year and has applied to the government for permission to plug a revenue deficit of £35m in 2017-18 with capital reserves.

Savings already announced in the report are set to reduce a previously projected overspend of £30m for 2018-19 by £10m, while the council report details an additional £20m in savings to help balance the books for the current financial year. This includes cuts to highway services, cutting the number of agency social workers, reducing “duplicated effort” across health and adult social care, and getting Local Government Shared Services (LGSS), the shared services organisation joint-owned by Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire CCs and Milton Keynes Council, to reduce council tax fraud.

Northamptonshire leader Matt Golby (Con) said: “These are unprecedented times for us and as such we need a robust plan to address the financial challenges we now face.

“The stabilisation plan published today alongside our latest financial reports show how we are now moving firmly towards stabilising our budget position.

“However we are of course acutely aware that the challenge to deliver this plan is significant and as such we will now focus all our energy on doing so.”

However, the leaders of Daventry DC, East Northamptonshire and South Northamptonshire councils and Kettering, Corby, Northampton and Wellingborough BCs described many of the savings proposed in the plan as “questionable”.

“In particular, [savings of] £7.8m in 2018-19 and £8.2m in 2019-20 rely on actions by the district councils which are not consistent with normally accepted accounting practices and interpretation of the relevant legislation, and as such have a significant risk of not being fully delivered,” they wrote.

In setting out that the county’s stabilisation plan “does not show commitment to the radical steps necessary if NCC’s financial situation is to be addressed,” the district and borough leaders said the plan “shows many of the flaws which have marked NCC’s financial management for the last few years”.

Some of these flaws relate to the county council’s continued record on overspending its budget as officers are projecting a “gap between expenditure and incomings of £59.9m” for 2018-19.

“Our concerns are with the plans to address the £20.1m in-year overspend and projections for following years,” the leaders said.

Other “disappointing” problems highlighted by leaders are that the plan contains “little reference to the role of other partners and, in particular, those from the health sector.”

The letter comes after a report was put before South Northamptonshire’s cabinet on Monday, describing “some potential disagreements in terms of the legality of these [savings proposals] and this is currently being explored.”

In the report, it said “there is an ask of district and borough to support the financial recovery of NCC through a number of actions, although these in themselves will have financial consequences for these authorities should they agree.”

South Northamptonshire leader Ian McCord (Con) told LGC he understood some of the district councils section 151 officers retained “concerns” over the legality of the plan and wanted to take time to check the government’s regulations.

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