Northamptonshire CC is not expected to significantly increase thresholds for either adult or children’s social care support despite facing a huge challenge to balance its books this year, LGC understands.
The council is attempting to make in-year savings of up to £70m on a net revenue budget of £441m and will strip services back to a statutory ‘core offer’ in a bid to stave off financial disaster.
However, a source with knowledge of the council told LGC Northamptonshire would have an “evens chance” of hitting its savings targets if it had three years to do so – but it has just one. The source warned there is a significant risk the council will fail to balance its budget this year because many of its savings proposals would take more than 12 months to come to fruition.
Responding, lead commissioner Tony McArdle told LGC: “This authority can live within its means and deliver what it’s required to deliver.”
For full coverage of Northamptonshire’s financial crisis, click here.
Northamptonshire earlier this month agreed “radical action” to fund a list of core priorities that will be “examined for rationalisation” under “radical service reductions and efficiencies”. These included factors causing relatively high spending on children’s services, and the number of referrals and children in the care system. The list also includes adults with learning disabilities, fees, charges and NHS contributions to social care.
However, it is understood there is no expectation on the commissioners’ part that they will do anything that increases the risk profile for adults or children’s services. It is hoped most savings will come from renegotiating external contracts, through which 70% of the council’s expenditure occurs.
Earlier this month Northamptonshire’s plan to close 21 libraries was ruled ‘unlawful’ by a High Court judge, raising concerns the council could face further legal challenges over its planned savings.
The proposal, a key part of an extra £10m cuts found hastily in February, was challenged by a family who had urged the council to review its decision. However, the judgment was based on the council’s process of reaching its decision rather than the proposal itself.
One legal expert told LGC the courts may not act against Northamptonshire’s decisions on statutory provision if it properly consults on the plans and adequate information is made available to inform councillors.
Olwen Dutton, a partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors and head of the firm’s local government team, told LGC the courts had considered councils’ statutory duties on a “fairly regular basis”, but had not intervened on p olitical decisions on service delivery.
She said it is up to each council to “consider how it meets its duty” to safeguard and promote the welfare of children classified as ‘in need’.
“When the courts [previously] looked at this, they said ‘we are not going to interfere in the way the council has chosen politically to deliver those services’, provided the way they decided to deliver those services is reasonable and it can be said they are observing their duty.”
Ms Dutton said since funding reductions began in 2010 there had been numerous challenges under public sector equalities duties but the number of successful challenges had dropped in recent years. This was because councils had improved decision-making processes and were able to demonstrate the right issues had been considered, she said.
Lawyers in Local Government president Suki Binjal said “grey areas undoubtedly exist” in legislation and guidance. She said she had “serious concerns about the black and white approach of solely focusing on statutory responsibilities” as “such a risk averse step undermines years of best practice in developing services and policies for the good of local communities”.
Ms Binjal added: “Local authorities could run the gauntlet of litigation claims, negligence and judicial reviews; the cost of which could potentially wipe out any cost savings.”
Earlier this month, local leaders in Northamptonshire recommended the county is split into two unitary councils, as proposed by government-appointed inspector Max Caller. The plan was endorsed by county councillors on Tuesday, as well as members on Wellingborough BC. The remaining councils will vote on the proposals this week but as two councils have already backed the plan it will be submitted to ministers on Friday regardless of what happens between now and then.
The proposal would see one council in the east of the county cover Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough BCs and East Northamptonshire Council, with the other in the west covering Daventry DC, Northampton BC and South Northamptonshire Council.
However, a report published by the councils warned that although the proposed structures would deliver some cost savings “it potentially risks only redistributing the existing financial instability of [Northamptonshire CC] across two new organisations, unless steps are taken to address the existing cost and income challenges”.
The councils suggested setting up a “residual body” with precepting powers to limit the financial risk and ensure the new councils are able to set budgets without “the historic legacy of both NCC and the districts and boroughs”.