Scrutiny changes at Northants County Council welcomed by commissioner

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The government commissioner overseeing Northamptonshire County Council has welcomed the move to overhaul its scrutiny function and focus its efforts on its financial recovery.

After a recommendation by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) the four existing committees that challenge what’s happening across the authority’s service delivery will be scrapped and replaced with one monthly scrutiny committee that will focus on the council’s finances.

As it heads towards its anticipated abolition in 2020, the council must balance its books and save £60m before the end of the financial year this coming April.

The move which was voted in by ouncillors yesterday (Thursday) was backed after the meeting by lead commissioner Tony McArdle.

He said: “The independent report from the Centre for Public Scrutiny that was received today (Thursday)  made it crystal clear that the council needs to fully grasp the scale of the financial problem facing it and prioritise its recovery.

“A focused work programme and the discipline of sticking to it will ensure that members expend their energies to best effect.

“We are grateful to the Centre for Public Scrutiny for the clarity of their report and for their commitment to helping the council implement it effectively.”

The councillors also voted to put Labour councillor Mick Scrimshaw as chairman of the new scrutiny committee and for the three vice chairman roles to go to a Liberal Democrat councillor, a Conservative and an independent member.

In an hour-long debate the move to reduce the number of scrutiny committees was criticised by some.

Conservative Cllr Richard Auger said: “What we want is a culture of forensic analysis.

“My concern is that we are going down from four committees to one.

“Can we cope with all the work?

“Why not have one financial scrutiny committee and one operational committee?”

Labour Cllr John McGhee also voiced his concerns and said the council should make sure it does not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Meredith said: “I do not like this at all.

“This is not going to give councillors representation.

“I feel I have been left out of discussions and I know that other councillors feel the same as well.”

Chief executive of the CfPs Jacqui McKinlay spoke at the meeting and explained to councillors the reasoning for her organisation’s recommendation.

She said advising councils on how to run their scrutiny was not usual practice for CfPs but that Northamptonshire was a special case.

She said: “This is a radical recommendation because of the unprecedented situation you find yourselves in.

“You have to prioritise as you only have 18 months.

“We will support you in developing a programme.”

She also said that the council must ensure that anything that happens in private is reported transparently and the authority should look at ways of involving the public.

The way NCC senior councillors and officers listened to scrutiny and challenge over recent years was much criticised by government inspector Max Caller, who in March issued a damning best value report which recommended that NCC be scrapped