The former Northamptonshire CC director of children’s services described as “strongly reluctant” to make savings by the then section 115 officer amidst warnings of a “significant financial crisis” in 2015 has been revealed as Alex Hopkins, who suddenly departed Sunderland’s children’s trust before it posted a £5.7m budget shortfall earlier this year.
Criticisms of senior management and their “defensive and non-compliant behaviour” approach to tackling savings at Northamptonshire were highlighted in a recently released letter from former finance director Matt Bowmer to then chief executive Paul Blantern. Mr Bowmer’s conerns were not acted on.
Mr Bowmer, who at the time said he would issue a section 114 notice within 21 days unless action was taken, said: “There is a strong reluctance by the director of children’s families and education to make any contribution to the overall position as his single focus at all costs is the re-inspection of the children’s social care provision.”
The director in question was not named in the letter but Northamptonshire has confirmed to LGC it was Alex Hopkins.
LGC reported in January how Mr Hopkins had suddenly left Sunderland City Council’s children’s trust shortly before the council agreed to invest an extra £4m a year to address a £5.7m budget shortfall.
In his letter, Mr Bowmer said despite Northamptonshire being a “low taxing and predominantly low spending authority”, the council had invested the eighth highest amount in children’s services of the 27 shire counties in 2014-15 after serious failings had been repeatedly identified by Ofsted.
He added £20m was invested in children’s social care services as part of the 2015-16 budget but the department had overspent by £21m by the time the letter was sent in October.
Mr Bowmer said: “I do understand the pressure [Mr Hopkins] is under and the high profile of the required improvement but there needs to be a corporate focus too.”
He later added: “I fail to believe that there aren’t significant efficiencies to be made in this service which we have always recognised as being inefficient as well as ineffective.”
A subsequent Ofsted report following an inspection completed in March 2016 rated Northamptonshire’s children’s social care services as ‘requires improvement’.
Mr Hopkins was appointed the first chief executive of the Sunderland trust Together for Children, which was launched in April 2017 after Ofsted identified a “corporate failure” by senior leaders and managers in the city that left vulnerable children and young people unsafe.
In January this year, Sunderland agreed to increase investment to address a £5.7m budget shortfall which was “primarily as a result of increased numbers of looked after children… and the continued use of agency social workers”.
It then emerged that Mr Hopkins had left the trust suddenly in the previous month, with the company declining to reveal the reason for his departure.
Tonight, members on Northamptonshire CC will discuss what their priority areas of spending are as they seek to find up to £70m savings this year alone.
LGC reported last week how cuts to services for vulnerable children, young people and adults are all being mooted as the county council seeks to find between £60m and £70m of in-year savings on a net revenue budget of £441m for 2018-19. An “equally stark” forecast for 2019-20 has also been predicted with an estimation that a further £54m savings will be required.
This comes after the county council last week issued its second section 114 notice in the space of six months.
Leader Matt Golby (Con) said: “In many ways we are now at the starting point of the very long journey of realigning our budget. Last week’s section 114 notice is the first time where there is complete clarity shared by us, the government and the external expertise at CIPFA of the scale of the challenge we face. This was critical if we were to ever have a chance of rising to this challenge.
“A dedicated team will be established within the council to lead on this work. The new priorities being discussed and agreed by councillors over these next two weeks – first tonight and then at Cabinet on August 14 - will be used to assess all spend across council services and identify where savings can be made.
“Of course 70 per cent of the council’s spend is through contracts with third party suppliers and a large piece of this work will be to review all of these contracts against the new priorities on a contract by contract basis.
“We will be open and fully transparent with the results of this work which will include painful but necessary decisions.”