The chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council has admitted the authority is still a ‘struggling’ one.
The council came in under budget last year against all predictions, despite a well-documented financial crisis. Although the authority had a massive helping hand in terms of being allowed to use £70million of ringfenced capital funds to help finance services, it was hoped the authority had finally turned the corner.
But chief executive Theresa Grant has warned councillors against thinking that the county council is now in a state of relatively good health. Her comments came as she addressed new projections that show the council is already on track to overspend by nearly £6million in the upcoming 2019/20 financial year.
Mrs Grant told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday (July 9): “When I arrived here 11 months ago we didn’t know how much we owed, we didn’t know how much we had to save for the year we were in, and we didn’t have a budget planned for the following year. To say we are in a very different position this year is a major understatement.
“What we do know is that there are still challenges in savings and we can be transparent about that in the reports. Currently we have a projected overspend at the end of this year which is not £64.2million as it was last year. It’s still quite small in comparison, but it’s still a concern for me nonetheless.
“Fragile is an understatement of a word in terms of our current finances and we have to be mindful of that in everything we do. While we are not operating under a section 114 notice any more, we are acting as if we still are and we’re being very prudent about what we spend, and it’s being scrutinised very thoroughly and transparently, and that’s different to when I arrived also.”
A large chunk of the predicted overspend is from children’s services, and the chief executive acknowledged that the budgets for such services were incredibly difficult to predict. It was made tougher still given the council’s current financial position.
She added: “There are two very large demand led services in the council and you cannot predict demand in hospitals over winter, you can’t predict demand if one of two children, or one or two families can completely blow your budget. You cannot predict for that.
“This is still an organisation that is not completely stabilised. We’ve come out of a very difficult time, and there’s still a lot to do. We’re still not a perfect organisation, and I sometimes think that because we last year managed to balance the budget that there is an expectation that we’ll somehow produce everything that’s perfect going forward. We won’t be able to do that because we still lack capacity in some areas.
“I would remind members of all parties to realise that we’re still a struggling organisation to keep ahead of ourselves. We have two more years to survive and give the two new unitaries the best start to life that we can possibly give them.”