LETTER OF THE WEEK: County council cash crisis is self-inflicted

Leader of Northamptonshire County Council, Councillor Heather Smith
Leader of Northamptonshire County Council, Councillor Heather Smith

As Conservative MPs for Northamptonshire we have been concerned with how the cabinet at Northamptonshire County Council have conducted its financial management for a number of years.

However, while we knew things were not right, when we have approached members of the cabinet at the county council, we have been repeatedly told, even as recently as December 2017, that the county council would be able to balance its budget.

It should be noted that the county’s financial problems are self-inflicted.

The Local Government Association published a damning peer review into the ongoing problems within Northamptonshire County Council last year which demonstrated this.

It’s feedback report stated: “There is a very short-term focus on solving the financial problems of today. There is no financial strategy to deliver a sustainable position for the council. The council has a poor record of delivering its approved budget.”

“Key decisions are not always taken in the understanding of the financial implications, risks and options. This was particularly the case with the Next Generation Council programme and its component parts. This has been the subject of an external audit comment with associated recommendations, but we could not find any record of these being addressed.

“Financial information is not presented clearly and transparently… reporting the budget in the context of the Northamptonshire Group environment is novel in the experience of the peer team and led to a sense of ‘opaqueness’.

“Decisions taken by the cabinet need greater transparency.”

“Some portfolio holders readily accept the information they are given without systematic and robust challenge. There is a tendency for cabinet members to trust that the relevant individual portfolio holder has challenged proposals.”

We also knew from backbench county councillors that very little information of any use was being giving to them and they were undermined by the county council’s cabinet when trying to scrutinise decisions.

We completely understand that position, as we were in a similar one.

Indeed, we had concerns that if the leadership of the council were giving central government the same information they were giving us as MPs and backbench county councillors, then a completely incorrect picture of the county council’s finances would be being passed on, which in turn would undermine any legitimate ask for fairer funding. Thus we were pleased when the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, decided to commence an independent Best Value Inspection of the authority, as we were quite clear it would quickly ascertain that the findings of the LGA Peer Review were correct and if anything understated, and that action from central government would quickly follow.

While we do have confidence in the staff of the authority, who we have dealt with on many levels and constantly deliver good services in tough circumstances – and we have great confidence in the backbench county councillors, who we believe could be capable of driving the county forward positively, if only they were given the opportunity to do so; we have no confidence in the leadership of the county council and the majority of the existing cabinet.

We would like the Best Value Inspection to conclude as soon as possible and it is our hope that it will lead to the Secretary of State intervening and appointing commissioners.

Peter Bone MP, Michael Ellis MP, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Philip Hollobone MP, Andrea Leadsom MP, Andrew Lewer MP and Tom Pursglove MP

Conservative MPs for Northamptonshire