Council should sell new Northampton HQ to balance books, experts conclude

Councillors and staff applaud Sajid Javid, the local government minister, as he officially opened One Angel Square earlier this month
Councillors and staff applaud Sajid Javid, the local government minister, as he officially opened One Angel Square earlier this month

A review of Northamptonshire County Council finances recommends selling then leasing back its £53m building that was opened just two weeks ago.

The 'peer review' was invited by council bosses and was carried out by a team from other local authorities, including a high-ranking councillor, directors and a chief executive.

Damning criticism, both of some officers and councillors, accuses County Hall of burying its head in the sand, and lurching from one year to the next with one-off quick fixes to sustain a balanced budget.

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Recommendations include:

-Selling and leasing back its new flagship building, One Angel Square, or renting out spare offices there

-Building new schools to a single template to cut design costs

-Reviewing school support services

-Review range of learning disability saving

-Review council tax base

-Review business rates

-Getting better value and reviewing home school transport, Special Educational Needs transport and social care transport

In the latest lambasting of the county council's financial mess, the Local Government Association report says a new interim group finance director has seen a better grip on finances.

But Satvinder Rana, the LGA's author of the report said: "However, time is running out for Northamptonshire County Council.

"The peer team got the sense that the council is banking on the 'hope' that it will be bailed out by the Government in 2019/2020, because it believes other councils may also find themselves in a similar position.

"This indicates that the council is heading towards major financial problems and the actions it now takes will determine its future financial sustainability."

But a spokesman for Northamptonshire County Council said bosses rejected accusations that they had mishandled the council's budget.

He said: "While we accept the many of the comments about the severity of the financial challenge and difficulties we have faced we don’t agree with other elements of the report with regard to the aspects of the council’s management of this situation.

“We have worked hard to consistently deliver a balanced budget through innovative ways of working and limiting the impact on frontline services, despite facing unprecedented levels of demand and reducing central government funding."

The spokesman said other councils have not had to deal with a perfect storm of adverse conditions that have hamstrung Northamptonshire bosses.

“There are other local authorities who are in a similar financial position as ourselves," he said, "but few who have seen the huge population growth as Northamptonshire, or have such limited historical assets or reserves as we do.

"This is why we will continue to review the way we deliver our services to ensure value for money for the taxpayer while calling on Government for an urgent review of the current funding model.”