A report criticising the financial management of Northamptonshire CC says the county tried illegally to remove recycling credits from district councils, pulled out of plans to find shared savings and withdrew from their waste partnership the day after assuring its partners of a continuing commitment to work together, LGC’s sister title Materials Recycling World reports.
In February, Northamptonshire became the first council in nearly two decades to issue a section 114 notice, imposing immediate spending controls.
An official inspection has concluded the county should be split into two new unitary councils by 2020 with commissioners sent in to run the local authority in the meantime.
The report, Northamptonshire County Council Best Value Inspection, includes a case study on the waste budget, beginning in December 2014 when the county council proposed to explore how it could better collaborate with the district and borough councils on the delivery of waste and recycling services.
The county thought “significant savings” could be made by harmonising waste and recycling services and a £7m savings proposal was called “collaboration on collection and disposal of waste and recycling”.
The inspector, Max Caller, said his team found evidence that Northamptonshire planned to withhold payment of recycling credits to the districts and boroughs. But Section 52 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 prohibits such a course of action unless the waste collection authority agrees. Mr Caller says no such arrangement was in place in the county and the collection authorities were clear that was not possible.
“This plan was eventually abandoned when its illegality became clear to NCC,” Mr Caller’s report said.
The report indicates that other questions were also raised as to whether proposed savings for 2015-16 were deliverable but, despite these warnings, the £7m proposal made it into the county council’s final budget.
During a year of meetings between the county’s seven district authorities, the report says, Northamptonshire officials were still pursuing the stopping of payment of recycling credits to the districts and boroughs but ”this plan was eventually abandoned when its illegality became clear to NCC”.
For the following year’s budget, officers from the district and borough councils explored alternative ways to help the county council meet a proposed saving of £500,000.
At a meeting in June 2016 of the county, district and borough chief executives, it was agreed the Northamptonshire Waste Partnership (NWP) would “look at harmonisation of waste and recycling collection services in Northamptonshire in order to identify potential financial savings”.
Using funds set aside by WRAP to promote consistency in refuse and recycling, NWP’s Harmonisation and Collaborative Working Steering Group commissioned a study to explore future waste service arrangements for the county.
The report identifies a NWP Board meeting of 7 March 2017 at which the results of this study were shared with NCC.
In a presentation entitled ‘Collaborative Working and Green Waste Update’ the district and borough councils committed to consider any cost savings or income generating opportunities in a bid to achieve a £500k saving for the county council.
“In so doing, they would work collaboratively in the best interests of the residents of Northamptonshire, while avoiding ‘poor relationships between district/boroughs and the county council’,” the report said.
It was concluded the collection authorities’ suggested package would achieve savings of up to £2.3m, would not require any upfront funding from the county council and would boost the county’s recycling rate.
In May 2017, all of the district and borough leaders committed to capital investments to deliver the proposals in exchange for taking at least 20 years to enable this investment to be made.
According to the inspector, the county council’s then chief executive Paul Blantern responded on 4 September and said the county did not wish to pursue the package proposals “primarily because the details of the proposal are likely to require significant discussion and negotiation in order to reach agreement”.
The report added: “Paul Blantern felt ‘progress with collaborative working to date has been slower than I think we’d all hope for’, concluding ‘the authority is not confident that agreement would be reached on the detail of these proposals within a reasonable timescale’.”
But, the report noted, “[Mr] Blantern was quick to assure the district and borough councils NCC was not abandoning its partnerships”.
It goes on: “The very next day, 5 September 2017, NCC resigned from the NWP. Despite their assurances of the previous day, in a letter signed by councillor Heather Smith (the leader) and councillor Ian Morris (cabinet member for transport, highways and environment), NCC declared it ’no longer believes it has the same priorities as the other partners’ and ’is heading in a different direction to the districts and boroughs’.”
The report concludes: “Despite the willingness of the districts and boroughs to align themselves with the county in considering more cost-effective ways of delivering the best value for money for residents, any hope of a positive working relationship between the two bodies was effectively terminated with NCC’s vow to ‘focus on its own priorities’.”
Mr Blantern left Northamptonshire in October 2017. The county council has been asked for a comment.