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Northants: one rule for children’s services, another rule for the rest

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Commentary on James Brokenshire’s decision to divide Northamptonshire in two.

So Northamptonshire CC, local government’s current icon of failure, is to be wiped from the map. This was confirmed by James Brokenshire this afternoon.

The housing and communities secretary announced that Northamptonshire will be split in two, replaced with West Northamptonshire Council and the somewhat repetitively named North Northamptonshire Council. The bits of the latter council adjacent to the boundary with Rutland CC will presumably be north North Northamptonshire Council.

Mr Brokenshire’s ministerial statement confirms that the county will pay the ultimate price for its failure to row back its spending amid the onset of austerity, and for some pioneering management structures which meant Northamptonshire lost control of many services.

In a report making recommendations for the future of children’s services in the county, Northamptonshire children’s services commissioner Malcolm Newsam set out its past failure quite succinctly. It came second to bottom in the relative spending of counties – at £956 per head of population in 2017-18, compared to an average of £1,125. Despite this, its expenditure on children’s social care was the second highest among county councils. “This has a significant impact on the funding available for other services,” Mr Newsam wrote.

Northamptonshire kept spending too much when its income was low and reducing – and its very name became a byword for failure as a result.

Of course, other councils’ names have been bywords for failure previously.

Lincolnshire CC is no longer the council of Jim Speechley (Con), the leader who was jailed for corruption in public office, and probably now bears more witness to the management abilities of Tony McArdle, who was its chief executive for many years before becoming lead commissioner in Northamptonshire.

Rotherham MBC, of course, remains well known for its failures over child sexual abuse. Nevertheless, its management clear out and strong leadership from chief executive Sharon Kemp, former director of children’s services Ian Thomas and leader Chris Read (Lab), and investment of money in fixing its social work model, has paid dividends, with government intervention there recently ending.

And few councils have been in such dire straits as Doncaster MBC, whose timeline features serious case reviews, corruption, service failure and officer/politician relationships deteriorating to such an extent that officers were advised not to touch its chief executive job “with a bargepole”. A partnership between elected mayor Ros Jones (Lab) and soon-to-depart chief executive Jo Miller has turned the authority around.

All of these councils have survived (as does Birmingham City Council whose struggles, largely finance-related, are ongoing). However, somehow Northamptonshire CC’s demise always felt inevitable.

Perhaps successive Tory communities secretaries always felt that it would be a Labour council that first bit the dust as a result of austerity, and were horrified that it was one of their own. Northamptonshire’s collapse has done the party’s reputation in local government little good among the wider population (unfairly – each council is a separate body and its leadership’s attributes should be considered individually).

In an LGC interview last year, Mr McArdle said the county “needs to face the consequences of its own past actions”. While he was referring to reining in expenditure, the same applied to its political longevity.

Political imperative meant that no single council that bore the name Northamptonshire could survive. Ministers could not be seen to be rescuing one of their own, even if the county council’s current more even keel is actually the result of hard work by the commissioners, chief executive Theresa Grant and a new leadership, than any government generosity.

Of course, political imperative also means the Department of Health & Social Care tolerates NHS organisations running up huge overspends. Ten hospital trusts overspent by a combined £850m last year, it was revealed last week – but it is hard to envisage names such as King’s College Healthcare Trust or Barts Health disappearing.

So it’s bye-bye Northamptonshire – except in one respect.

Mr Brokenshire revealed education secretary Damian Hinds was “minded” to create a single children’s trust covering the whole county. This is in line with a recommendation in Mr Newsam’s report, which warned strongly against the “disaggregation” of children’s services into two separate unitaries.

Mr Newsam said he had “significant concerns” about this.

“Any improvements that have been made are very recent and there continue to be some fundamental systemic failures that must be addressed urgently,” he wrote.

“There is also a considerable risk that should a decision be taken to disaggregate children’s services this will immediately divert energy, attention and resources away from this priority and the disastrous implications of this cannot be underestimated. A new leadership team has just commenced an improvement programme, but they will need to maintain an unrelenting focus on delivering this if the current risks within the service are to be mitigated.”

He said of retaining a county-wide footprint for his proposed new ‘alternative delivery model’: “This option has the benefit of not requiring disaggregation into two smaller units with all the complexity that entails.”

So it’s one rule for children’s services, another for the rest of the council. A council and its beleaguered staff who have made significant progress towards reining in expenditure (without cutting as many services as perhaps feared) will now face the difficulty of reorganisation.

A historic county and series of districts (some well run, some less so) have paid the price for the former’s excesses.

By Nick Golding, editor

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