LGC’s commentary on the demise of a troubled Northamptonshire CC
Financial fallout #1: Northants district leaders rail against reorganisation
Financial fallout #2: Rob Whiteman: Northants is not alone in its precarious position
Financial fallout #3: Analysis: ‘No sanctions for failure’ revealed in inspector’s report
Northamptonshire CC may enter the history books as the Carillion of local government.
The parallels are uncanny – both until recently boasted of their economic health and business innovations and ploughed on blithely disregarding warnings of financial disaster.
Both are also destined for the corporate knacker’s yard. Carillion is a vestige being liquidated and Northamptonshire will - barring some surprise government decision - be split into two unitaries, government-appointed inspector Max Caller having reached the startling conclusion that it is beyond saving.
Northamptonshire’s collapse will be blamed by some on government cuts and rising social care costs.
But, as Mr Caller found, it was not notably disadvantaged compared with other councils and its demise was not inevitable.
His report itemises a chamber of horrors in which financial control was lacking, questions were discouraged, councillors silenced, information withheld, and yet a gung-ho political leadership and management ignored its tottering finances while pursuing a mass outsourcing that lacked rationale.
Mr Caller did not hold back in the aghast tones of his report, but there is one issue left rather unexplored.
The Northamptonshire fiasco took place with scrutiny committees, audit firms, the government, opposition parties and local media all in theory ready to sound alarms or blow whistles.
Despite this theoretical volume of oversight, the report suggests none of it happened effectively except possibly from the districts, with which Northamptonshire has long had sulphurous relations.
Even formal warnings from auditor KPMG went into the category of “how fascinating, now go away we really are very busy”.
Backbench councillors had information withheld which other councils would normally have at least put as a confidential agenda item – something Mr Caller said was “just wrong”.
Questions from managers were ignored in an atmosphere where “challenge and criticism were to be discouraged as senior members and officers knew best”.
Mr Caller noted when the LGA was invited to undertake a peer review of the financial situation, chief executive Paul Blantern “did not think it important enough to be in the country for the whole of the review period or the feedback session”. Interestingly, after Mr Blantern resigned in October his interim successor Damon Lawrenson was abroad when a section 114 notice was issued in February, limiting council spending.
Most extraordinary is the concept of Northamptonshire’s ’next generation’ model - of which Mr Blantern was its architect. This was promoted with much fanfare under which its commissioning core would “rightsource” (sic) services from an assortment of mutuals, social enterprises and companies created from its former departments.
Given that as recently as last August, Northamptonshire touted this model as the future of local government, Mr Caller’s findings are jaw dropping.
“There was not then and has never been any hard edged business plan or justification to support these proposals,” the report said of next generation.
It went on: “The next generation approach does not have any documented underpinning which sets out how it was expected to deliver the efficiencies and savings necessary to justify the investment and has served to obscure and prevent effective member oversight and budgetary control.”
Indeed, having set up next generation in this opaque way, Northamptonshire equally opaquely ended it. Or not as the case may be.
As Mr Caller said: “There was a lack of clarity about what has happened to the next generation council approach. It would appear to have been abandoned but that is not clear. The council plan that has just been approved is silent on the topic.”
Suggesting Northamptonshire’s division into two unitaries, Mr Caller said its problems are “so deep and ingrained that it is not possible to promote a recovery plan that could bring the council back to stability and safety in a reasonable timescale”.
And thus, senior figures at Carillion and Northamptonshire both walked over a cliff in the grip of some groupthink, which all the safeguards supposedly set in both business and local government proved powerless to prevent.
By Mark Smulian, reporter