Northants commissioner: Council still has a long way to go

29 Mar 19

Northamptonshire County Council’s finances “remain fragile” due to a lack of robust reserves and require savings of £40m, its finance commissioner Brian Roberts has told PF

Roberts, a former CIPFA president, was speaking to PF after news broke yesterday morning the commissioners had called for Northamptonshire’s section 114 notice to be lifted.

“The council is on a journey of recovery – not only for its finances but for the quality of services – and this is only part of the journey,” he told PF.

Roberts, recently appointed associate director of local government at CIPFA, added: “Although this [the lifting of the section 114 noticed] is good news, the finances really remain very fragile. We are still finding legacy issues and concerns -  they haven’t got robust reserves.”

The section 114 notice had effectively banned all non-statutory spending.

Roberts told PF he was “concerned” about all the council’s services and explained a separate commissioner was now overseeing the council’s children’s services following an adverse Ofsted report.

He and his fellow commissioner – the lead commissioner Tony McArdle – had advised someone else was brought it to look at the local authority’s children’s services.

The commissioner’s report, due out on Monday, will show the council is due to “basically break even – they are marginally under by about £100,000,” he said.

He added: “Although they have set a robust and realistic budget for next year, there’s still £40m savings to make next year so that’s going to be a challenge.”

Roberts said the council will use capital receipts to create a £20m non-earmarked reserve for 2019-20. “It’s not used to balance the budget, it’s just there as reserves,” he said.

Savings had been made through measures, such as more efficient contract management and better management of waste disposal costs, Roberts said.

“We were able to deliver efficiency savings, which many well-run authorities probably did many years ago,” he added.

The commissioners avoided redundancies and “slashing and burning services” despite “pressure from people who saw that as the obvious answer”, Roberts told PF.

The former deputy chief executive and director of resources at Leicester City Council hailed new appointments within the leadership team, which he said had “re-energised” the council.

Theresa Grant was appointed as chief executive in July while financial director Ian Duncan was hired in October.

Roberts said Northamptonshire's troubles showed “the importance of the section 151 officer”.  The section 151 officer signals when a local authority is in financial difficulty and if it needs to issue a 114 notice.

“Lessons should be learnt from Northamptonshire, it is a seismic event in the sector. Maybe it takes something like this to make others sit up and take note – if it helps make a difference elsewhere that has to be a positive,” Roberts said.

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