County Council's chief executive gives libraries hope

Theresa Grant
Theresa Grant

The woman in charge of making sure Northamptonshire County Council is in good shape before it is abolished in 2020 says it can be done and she is also preparing some good news for library supporters.

Undoubtedly NCC’s new chief executive Theresa Grant has the toughest job in local government on her hands, having to not only make £65m worth of savings to make sure the books balance this April alongside plans to shut down the authority and transfer its services to two new unitary authorities.

But she is confident that the ‘stabilisation plan’ she has put together with commissioners and a senior staff team can deliver the necessary savings and has said the focus has been on ‘treasury management’ rather than cuts to services.

Ms Grant said she is personally leading the libraries review and was hoping for a ‘positive outcome’.

She said: “The libraries were in the headlines when I got here and one of the first things I did was to say we need to just stop because I wanted to reassess what had been proposed.

“So I put a task force together of people who know the buildings and know the community, who know what we need and we have been working really hard.

“In my previous role I was building new libraries and opening new libraries not closing them.

“It could be a possibility here. We could see an investment in libraries as opposed to what we have seen previously but you are going to have to wait a few weeks for that’.”

The chief executive says business plans are now being worked up for the suggestions in the stabilisation plan and that some service changes proposed for 2019-20 will go out to public consultation.

The experienced chief executive, who ran Trafford council for more than ten years before taking over at NCC said she hopes the government decides to allow the council capital dispensation - which means it can use some of the funds it has made from building sales to meet last year’s budget deficit.

She said: “If we can prove we are doing everything we can to put things right, government would, I am sure be much more disposed to giving us that dispensation but I agree with them. They should not reward failure although to give us dispensation would give us a fighting chance.”

The catastrophic next generation model that was brought in by former chief executive Paul Blantern has also been ditched entirely and the council has been reorganised with the finance and democratic service teams coming back in-house from shared service LGSS.

She said: “The next generation model was not about transformation. It was about putting everything into an arms length organisation. It introduced layers of management that have not been helpful.”

Ms Grant is also looking at the council’s existing buildings and considering how they could be used to provide good quality accommodation for adults with learning difficulties. The council spends on average £20,000 each year per adult compared to neighbouring authorities.

She said: “Reopening facilities we already have or converting buildings the council owns are options for us.

“There are so many creative ways of solving problems and saving money, you just have to have the will and the skill to do that.

“New provision will solve some of the problem. But also it is not just about the finances.

“People are very distracted about finances and that really annoys me because we should not be shaped by austerity. We need good provision for people with learning disabilities who can get a better quality service closer to home. That for me is what it is about.”

Working with the district and borough councils is a key part of her plan for the next 18 months. The county is relying on its neighbouring councils collecting and handing over almost £6m of council tax payments before April.
The senior officer said: “So the districts and boroughs have all said they want to support and they want to help however there is some reluctance in some areas.

“I can fully understand why there would be a reticence because historically from what I have seen the county has been arrogant in its approach and it has put districts and boroughs in a position where they don’t see us as friends, but we have put that behind us.

“We really want to work with the districts and boroughs and I am working with the chief execs and they are very passionate about their areas.”

Ms Grant said there have been some developments about the tenancy at the headquarters of One Angel Square although she has signed a ‘confidentiality agreement’ with news to come in the spring.

She sees her job as putting the pieces of the authority back together and has ruled out staying on as one of the chief executives of a new unitary authority.

She said: “I would want to make sure we hand the organisation over to the two unitaries in the best condition it can be. I would like to leave a legacy I can be proud of and say the unitaries had a really good start in life to give them the very best chance to be successful.”