SPECIAL REPORT: Council's next generation plans were mean to be the silver bullet to save us - but this week they were shot to pieces

The final nails have been hammered in plans to 'revolutionise' Northamptonshire County Council by moving all of its services and staff over to a set of mutual companies.

Friday, 2nd March 2018, 7:41 am
Updated Friday, 2nd March 2018, 2:09 pm
Former chief executive Paul Blantern, the architect of the next generation model, left Northamptonshire County Council last year.

Back at the end of 2015, finance chiefs at county hall announced plans to, over the next five years, begin outsourcing services to four mutual companies and reducing its core workforce from 4,000 to 150.

The "next generation" model, as it came to be known, was initially reported as the panacea for a cash-strapped authority and promised to save £350 million.

The companies would be free to offer better terms to new employees and, freed from the shackles of local government rules, they could even be free to generate their own income.

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Councillor Robin Brown admitted the next generation plans had been canned this week.

But this week confirmation came that the whole scheme, masterminded by former chief executive Paul Blantern, was officially dead in the water.

It seemed inevitable.

First for Wellbeing, the first mutual company to be set up of the four companies, has now been absorbed by Northamptonshire's adult social services. It was intended to look after libraries - 21 of which will be closed this year.

NASS - the new name for adult social services, ended up being nothing more than a rebrand and Olympus Care, the council's care delivery "vehicle" has now also been brought back in house.

Councillor Robin Brown admitted the next generation plans had been canned this week.

At the crucial budget meeting this week, cabinet member for finance, Councillor Robin Brown announced the scheme had collapsed.

He said: "Today we recognise that we don't have the funding, the equity or the capital resources to be able to do this.

"In the past few months it has been clear that this has had to change."

It is understood the council will still seek to set up a separate company to look after children's services this year as it has been given government funding.

But the original intention of outsourcing all but a core group of around 150 staff to mutual companies has now certainly been canned.

The plans were controversial from the start.

Opposition members said the mutuals could operate with less accountability and unions feared their members' terms and conditions would change when they transferred over to the new companies.

Speaking at this week's meeting, Labour's shadow cabinet member for finance, Councillor Mick Scrimshaw, said the plan was doomed to fail from the start.

"This council has spent time and money desperately trying to make private sector mentality fit a local government model," he said.

"It was never going to work."

But Councillor Brown's speech this week suggested that a lack of funds to set up the new companies came about following a perfect storm of funding withdrawals.

The council was hoping to be included in a pilot scheme allowing it to retain 100 per cent of all business rates collected in the county. But it was not successful.

It also failed to sell a parcel of the Buckton Fields land for £12 million and was told by auditors it could not simply use all of the proceeds from sold assets to prop up next year's day-to-day running costs.

Though the Conservative group has been criticised in recent years for not raising council tax by small amounts, Councillor Brown claimed the former Labour administration in 1996 had to bear some responsibility.

Back in the 90s the authority raised council tax by some 84 per cent - but Councillor Brown said the council should have pushed tax up by 94 per cent, as neighbours in Oxfordshire did at the same time. This, he argued would have improved the authority's baseline budget for years to come.

Either way "we are where we are " as embattled council leader Heather Smith said this week.

Now, there is a real possibility people in Northamptonshire will be asked to vote in a referendum to raise council tax above the statutory three per cent next year.