Northampton university vice chancellor Nick Petford criticises 'meddling journalists' in council speech

The Vice Chancellor of Northampton’s university has told councillors at failing Northamptonshire County Council that they are doing a ‘great job’ and has hit out at ‘meddling journalists’.

By Sarah Ward
Thursday, 5th December 2019, 3:26 pm
The under performing authority, which is making cuts to services and closing libraries, is run by Conservative leader Matt Golby.
The under performing authority, which is making cuts to services and closing libraries, is run by Conservative leader Matt Golby.

In an invited slot of Thought for the Day at the most recent full council (Nov 21) Vice Chancellor Nick Petford took the opportunity to give a motivational speech to the councillors assembled at county hall, most of whom were in role when the council collapsed in April last year, with a £41m financial deficit.

Since then Ofsted has put the council’s children’s services department into special measures after a series of failings, appointed a children’s commissioner to oversee the department as well as two commissioners to make sure the Conservative-run council gets back on track before it is due to close down in 2021.

The highly paid university leader, who has a salary of £262,000 and whose perks include a chauffeur and membership of an exclusive private members club in London, had praise, sympathy and encouragement for the elected politicians and said the university has a duty to stand by the council ‘as supporter and friend’.

University boss Nick Petford has criticised meddling journalists for asking difficult questions of councillors and accentuating the negatives.

He started off his four-minute speech by declaring that an Ipsos Mori poll from two years ago had said the public rated politicians as the most dishonest profession, behind bankers and estate agents

He told the councillors: “Given this, it takes courage to commit publicly to an idea or a set of values in a climate – as we watch tv – dominated by hostility. Served up 24/7 by unaccountable keyboard warriors venting their spleens on social media, or worse still, meddling journalists asking difficult questions with both eyes set on accentuating the negative.

“Arguably NCC has had perhaps some of the worst of it with events over the past 24 months playing into the hands of cynics and naysayers. It can’t be easy to be told as politicians and councillors by outsiders that as elected representatives things need to change and quickly.

“With the uncertainty caused by the forthcoming elections, the future governance structure of the county may seem less certain than a few weeks ago. Because of these setbacks and frustrations your role becomes more important, not less.

“They become more significant in delivering the sustained leadership the county needs to get back on track. The political roles you collectively shoulder are not a curse they are a privilege. You are here to serve the people of Northamptonshire, and you are doing, by the way, a great job.”

The council, its elected member and officers have been repeatedly criticised by all quarters for the failure of the organisation – the first in England in more than two decades to go bust after running down its reserves and overspending its budgets. It has been the subject of national and international media scrutiny, with journalists flying over from New York and Japan to report on the collapse of the local authority. In the past six months the finances have stabilised but commissioners still say there is much to do to make sure the services are fit to hand over to the two new anticipated unitary councils.

The university, which has a media department and trains aspiring journalists, has close links with the council, which loaned the university £22m in 2016 and 2017 to help pay for its new campus and energy centre. The funds had been borrowed by the local authority from the Public Works Loan Board on behalf of the higher education establishment.