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Updated: Unitary size steer as Northants faces commissioners

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The housing and communities secretary is “minded to” send commissioners in to run Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire CC.

Commissioners are expected to take control of the council’s financial management and governance procedures, although Sajid Javid will give them “reserved powers” to take control of any other functions “if they consider they need to step in”.

Mr Javid said he is also considering proposals from inspector Max Caller to break the county up into two unitaries, while one unitary covering the county is “not an option” according to a letter to Northamptonshire’s districts from the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government’s head of the governance reform and democracy unit Paul Rowsell.

Proposals for ”a unitary authority for an area which is part of a county and one or more adjoining districts in an adjacent county” will be considered however. 

South Northamptonshire DC leader Ian McCord (Con) had previously expressed concern about Mr Caller’s recommendation to split the county into two unitaries. Cllr McCord said that had not taken into account the fact South Northamptonshire Council has shared all staff with Cherwell DC in Oxfordshire in a process which began in 2011 and completed last year.

Notes in the schedule state that any unitary proposal should cover “a credible geography consisting of one or more existing local government areas” and have “a substantial population that at a minimum is substantially in excess of 300,000”. LGC reported in 2016 how government officials had indicated any new unitary councils should ideally serve populations of between 300,000 and 700,000.

In a short speech to Parliament this afternoon, Mr Javid said he needed to consider whether further action on the council is necessary before using powers under section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999.

Mr Javid said: “While I recognise that councils across the country are facing challenges, Northamptonshire’s failures are not down to a lack of government funding or because it was being treated unfairly.”

In a letter to Northamptonshire’s interim chief executive Andrew Quincey from the ministry’s deputy director of local government stewardship Alex Powell it said commissioners ”should be in place for three years”. However, the letter later added they will exercise their functions “until the point at which it is anticipated that a long term solution such as the restructuring process is complete”.

The council became the first council in almost 20 years to issue a section 114 notice in February, forbidding any new spending.

Cllr Matt Golby (Con), interim leader of Northamptonshire CC, called for commissioners to take charge of the council last week, according to the Daventry Express.

“I think the organisation needs it now,” he reportedly said. “It needs a clear link with the government so they know what pressures we are dealing with. It is so they know what the source facts are - particularly in adults and children’s services.”

Responding to today’s announcement a Northamptonshire CC spokesman said: “We welcome this announcement and the clarification of the views of the Secretary of State and the potential direction of travel for Northamptonshire. 

“We view this as an opportunity for a fresh start in our working relationship with the government and the county’s MPs.

“We also welcome the invitation for submissions for unitary governance in the county. We have long maintained that this county needs a reorganisation of local government and we see today’s invitation for submissions as a further opportunity for us to work alongside our district and borough colleagues to find the best solutions for the county.

“We will now be formally responding to the government and are looking forward to working alongside them to deliver the best outcome for the people of Northamptonshire.”

A County Councils Network spokesman said Mr Javid had “no option but to send in commissioners to stabilise the financial position” of Northamptonshire CC.

“CCN will support the transition to unitary governance in Northamptonshire, whatever model is decided on,” they said. “Important decisions like this should be made with the best interests of Northamptonshire residents at heart – based on all the available evidence and avoiding short–term political fixes.

“This evidence emphatically shows that a single county unitary would deliver 68% greater efficiency savings than a two-unitary option. It also offers the scale to retain, and subsequently transform, life-critical services such as children’s social care and adult social care.”

Rob Whiteman, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy chief executive, said: “It is right for the government to act to ensure there is financial leadership of Northamptonshire County Council and also to call for local proposals on the future of the authority.

“Whatever the decision on the shape the reforms take, it is crucial that we learn the principle lessons from the county council’s failure.

“The Max Caller report pointed to a culture in its leadership of ignoring clear warning signs. This case must therefore stand as a lesson for all public bodies in terms of the need for checks and balances, for robust governance and financial oversight, and for heeding the advice of outside experts.”




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