Members of Northamptonshire CC’s audit committee have spoken to LGC about a “frustrating” closed-door culture at the council.
Councillors spoke of an organisation where concerns and reports from external auditor KPMG were either ignored or played down by senior management while criticism was discouraged.
Last week government inspector Max Caller published his damning report into Northamptonshire CC and said the council had “failed to comply” with its best value duty under the Local Government Act 1999. Mr Caller has recommended the county be broken up into two unitary authorities.
Former independent chair of the audit committee David Watson told LGC: “We did sound warnings [to management], but we had no powers except to make warnings. It was frustrating.”
On one occasion in 2016, Mr Watson said he was criticised by former chief executive Paul Blantern for trying to raise concerns in council over how the next generation council model would operate.
Mr Watson said he had raised his concerns at council with the monitoring officer present instead.
“There were always reasons for wanting to defer and my concentration was on making sure the work was done and it just took an awfully long time,” said Mr Watson. “Everyone was aware of my concerns.”
The former chair also pointed towards the reduced resource of his committee as concerns.
“We had the limited internal resource of an audit committee of only six people,” he said. “I was the only one with any qualification in audit or any understanding of audit. I am also the one with no vote but with the job of guiding the councillors.”
Mr Watson later said: “I couldn’t have been clearer in my concerns to the council - and the [external] auditors also painted the same picture for two years. Nothing happened when those concerns went to the highest management. That’s the whole point of the [inspection] report.”
LGC has heard how scrutiny was discouraged across the council, with questions left unanswered by officers and information not forthcoming.
“One time we asked a senior officer for a report commissioned by similar authorities, but the officer wouldn’t let us see it,” said Sam Rumens (Con), a member of the audit committee.
“We reminded him that we’re elected councillors with a right to information, but he still didn’t share it.”
According to Mr Caller, this unwillingness to share information ultimately meant the council “repeatedly” failed to spot spending pressures that it termed “unavoidable” – something the inspector questioned.
Another audit committee member, Michael Clarke (Con), compared the council to a “bombsite, because we’re trying to pick up the pieces”.
Cllr Clarke said: “The findings of the audit committee should have been taken much more seriously by both the 151 officer and finance portfolio holder [over the past two years].
“The committee was doing its work, to a great extent, and working well with the external auditors; but when it came to shining a light on the results and recommendations of the audit committee - that was being deliberately downplayed at council.
“There were derogatory comments that the auditors had a point but the members said we didn’t really fully understand what they’re doing with the next generation council [model].”
Mr Caller’s report blamed the adoption of the ‘next generation’ model as a root cause to the county council’s financial problems.
Julie Davenport (Lab) said her limited time on the committee had also been frustrating.
“The council just didn’t listen to a word we said at audit committee or in opposition,” Cllr Davenport said.
Meanwhile, LGC was told by a number of sources that scrutiny committee chair James Hakewill (Con) warned members against scrutinising too much in public and to leave the real debate behind closed doors.
“That debate behind closed doors never happened,” said Cllr Rumens.
Cllr Hakewill refused to comment on those allegations but said “any unsubstantiated allegations should be referred to the monitoring officer.”
A Northamptonshire CC spokesman said: “Comments about our scrutiny process were made in the inspector’s best value inspection report and we will be considering these comments and the wider report over the coming days before responding directly to the secretary of state.”