A new council HQ? Oh, oh – this looks VERY familiar!

Owl has been doing some digging about how Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) tanked and has come up with some worrying information which resonates somewhat worryingly with our own area …

Remember that NCC built a new HQ and almost immediately had to attempt to buy its way out of debt by selling it and renting it back to themselves.

The new NCC HQ (One Angel Square) was originally going to cost £34 million, then £40 million, then £43 million, then £52 million, then £53 million. It was eventually delivered ‘under budget’!

But as costs rose, the size of the building was reduced by 20%. So effectively the cost doubled!

NCC built their new HQ to replace 12 existing buildings. Those 12 buildings were claimed to be costing £53,000 a week to run. It was later claimed that the new building would save £52,000 a week in running costs. Work that one out!

As soon as the new building opened, staff complained about the lack of space and the 20 minutes every morning sorting out their ‘hot desks’.


Some FAQs from the early consultations:

Q4: Isn’t this just building up debt for the county when it can ill afford it?

A4: This is a spend to save scheme. The county council will continue to take
opportunities like these to invest in new infrastructure which will ultimately reduce the debt. By doing nothing the debt position will get worse than undertaking the new build.

Q5: How can the council afford to build a huge new office block on the one
hand but on the other hand plead poverty and cut services or turn off street
lights? Couldn’t this money have been better used to protect services?

A5: It is by taking this step that will help us protect services. By maintaining the status quo and spending increasing amounts of money to maintain and operate old buildings that are no longer fit for purpose the council would be forced to redirect costs from front line services. By taking these proactive decisions now and saving building operating costs in the future it will allow those savings to either reduce debt or be spent on front line services.

Q6: Surely there’s a less expensive solution. Why don’t you convert one of
your buildings – like JDH – so it can take more people? That would be a far
cheaper solution.

A6: The other options have all been professionally evaluated. By looking at all the costs and benefits of the different options a new build at the Angel Street came out as the best option.”

(page 149)

Which all looks just a bit too familiar…

Bailing out Northamptonshire County Council would be “a reward for failure”

More on that scandal – so easily replicated when a few arrogant, ignorant officers and councillors, whose majority gives them the belief they cannot ever be challenged or scrutinised, think they can get away with anything …..

“Northamptonshire county council (NCC), which declared effective bankruptcy last month, should be scrapped, a devastating inspectors’ report into widespread financial and management failures at the authority has recommended.

A government-appointed investigator’s report said the problems at the council were so deep-rooted that it was impossible to rescue it in its current form, and to do so “would be a reward for failure”. It recommends that ministers send in a team of external commissioners to take over the day-to-day running of the council until it can be broken up and replaced with two new smaller authorities.

The lead inspector, Max Caller, said NCC had ignored a growing financial crisis at the authority, which he said had been beset by poor management, lack of scrutiny and unrealistic budget-setting.

Explaining why he advised breaking up the council, Caller’s report says: “The problems faced by NCC are now so deep and ingrained that it is not possible to promote a recovery plan that could bring the council back to stability and safety in a reasonable timescale.”

He added: “To change the culture and organisational ethos and to restore balance, would, in the judgment of the inspection team, take of the order of five years and require a substantial one-off cash injection. Effectively, it would be a reward for failure.”

It was unlikely councillors and the officers had the strength of purpose to bring the council back into line, he said. “A way forward with a clean sheet, leaving all the history behind, is required.”

The council’s leader, Heather Smith, resigned after the report’s publication, telling the BBC that she blamed “vicious attacks by four local MPs”, adding “you cannot win” if the “machinery of government turns against you”.

Responding to the report, Northampton North MP Michael Ellis called the management of the authority a national scandal. All seven local Tory MPs criticised the council last month saying they had no confidence in its leadership [too little too late!).

The report rejected the council leadership’s claim that it had been disadvantaged by government funding cuts and underfunded given the pressure of a growing and elderly population. Similar councils had coped with these pressures and Northamptonshire “was not the most disadvantaged shire council”, the report says.

It excoriates the council’s disastrous attempt to restructure services by outsourcing them to private companies and charities, the so-called Next Generation programme. Poor design, chaotic management, and a lack of controls and oversight meant that budgeting was “an exercise of hope rather than expectation”, it says.

It drily notes that it was not clear whether the programme was still in existence.“It would appear to have been abandoned but that is not clear,” the report says.

The council had lost control of its budgeting in 2013 after a critical Ofsted report into its children’s services forced an expensive overhaul of child protection services, and never recovered, the report says. It said the council’s approach to financial management came across as “sloppy, lacking in rigour and without challenge”.

There was a lack of realism in business plans, and savings targets were frequently not met. Senior councillors and officials ignored or evaded criticism and challenge, it says, and budgets were set by without regard to need, demand or deliverability. “Living within budget constraints is not a part of the culture at NCC,” the report concludes.

Although financial officials had raised the alarm about the extent of NCC’s growing finanical problems as far back as 2015, this had been ignored by senior management and councillors. There was a culture in NCC where “overspending is acceptable and there are no sanctions for failure”, the report says.

The council had continually patched up financial holes with one-off uses of reserves, or by selling off assets and using the proceeds. The report concludes: “This is not budget management.”

By the end relationships with public sector partners such as the NHS has deteriorated so much that there is a “significant level of distrust that NCC will ever be able to deliver against its promises and undertakiings”.

It noted that the councils’ staff were not to blame for the fiasco. “NCC employs many good, hardworking, dedicated staff who are trying to deliver essential services to residents who need and value what is offered and available. The problems the council faces are not their fault.”

Last month the council issued a section 114 note – the local government equivalent to bankruptcy – because it said it could not set a balanced budget for 2018-19.”


Damning report on culture at insolvent Tory council

Anyone interested in how a council can go bad should read this relatively brief and easy-to-read report on the shenanigans which went on at Northamptonshire County Council prior to its technical insolvency. It was SO bad the Inspector recommends doing away with it entirely and creating two separate unitary authorities for a fresh start.

Full report here:

Owl particularly “enjoyed”:

Section 3.46 – 3.52 – the behaviour of the Chief Executive and senior officers)

Section 3.78 – 3.84 – scrutiny (lack of)

Section 3.90 – 3.100 (role and function of the Audit Committee)

and Section 4.5

“The council did not respond well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism. Individual councillors appear to have been denied answers to questions that were entirely legitimate to ask and scrutiny arrangements were constrained by what was felt the executive would allow. When external agencies reported adverse findings these were not reported with an analysis of the issues and either a justification or an action led response to a relevant decision taking body. At its most extreme, the two KPMG ISA 260 reports, stating an adverse opinion on Value For Money matters were just reported to the Audit Committee without comment and the unprecedented KPMG Advisory Notice issued under the 2014 Act was reported to full council without any officer covering report giving advice on what the response was recommended to be.

and 4.11:

“It is not possible to establish what action the corporate management team took in the face of all these issues as those meetings that took place were not minuted.”

As reported in the area’s local paper:

“Max Caller, an independent inspector, was called in by local government secretary Sajid Javid after allegations of financial mismanagement. He was also tasked with seeing if the local authority was being run properly by bosses and the cabinet’s Conservative councillors. …

His report, published this morning, says the origins of the crisis was the Ofsted inspection into Children’s Services in 2013 that caused emergency money to be pumped in, which meant the local authority ‘lost tight budgetary control’.

What came next was a poor response to the financial pressures, Mr Caller says, in effect chasing a heavily flawed model championed by departed CEO Paul Blantern.

He said: “Instead of taking steps to regain control, the council was persuaded to adopt a ‘Next Generation’ model structure as the solution.

“There was not then, and has never been, any hard-edged business plan or justification to support these proposals. Yet councillors, who might well have dismissed these proposals for lack of content and justification in their professional lives, adopted them and authorised scarce resources in terms of people, time and money to develop them.

“This did not and could not address the regular budget overspends which were covered by one off non-recurring funding sources.”

When the use of capital receipts to fund transformation was introduced by central government, Mr Caller says this was seized on as a way of supporting revenue spend – by classing some expenditure as ‘transformative’.

However until this week, there had been no report to full council – or anywhere else – that set out the specific transformation that was to be achieved, on a project-by-project basis. This goes against the terms of use of the money.

Despite his criticism of bosses, Mr Caller makes a point of separating the acts of managers and leaders from frontline staff.

He says: “NCC employs many good, hardworking, dedicated staff who are trying to deliver essential services to residents who need and value what is offered and available. The problems the council faces are not their fault.”


The buck stops with councils on outsourced services says Ombudsman

“Councils must ensure that accountability for any outsourced services is not lost when the service is delivered by an external contractor, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has told MPs.

In evidence to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Michael King said: “Dealing with complaints about services outsourced to private or voluntary providers or delivered through other types of partnerships has been a growing dimension of our work across all areas we investigate.

“The law is clear: councils can outsource their services, but not the responsibility for them. Councils need to keep robust oversight of any organisations they contract with and have clear arrangements in place for how complaints will be dealt with.”


Insolvent (Tory) council – the blame game begins!

“Cash-strapped Northamptonshire County Council should be scrapped, according to a government report.

The report, ordered by Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid, recommends “a new start” which is “best achieved by the creation of two new unitary councils”.

Council leader Heather Smith resigned following the report’s publication.

Northampton North MP Michael Ellis called the management of the authority a “national scandal”.

He said he was “appalled” by the report, which “makes for chilling reading”.

Conservative councillor Ms Smith criticised “vicious attacks by four local MPs”, adding “you cannot win” if the “machinery of government turns against you”. …

The report said its findings are “very serious” for the council and its residents.

The council “did not respond well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism”, Mr Caller said.
He added individual councillors “appear to have been denied answers” to legitimate questions. …

Mr Caller was also critical of the council’s ‘Next Generation Model,’ which planned to outsource all services and create four new bodies for child protection, care of vulnerable adults, providing health and well-being services, and improving the county.

The report said the model did not have “any documented underpinning” of how it intended to deliver £68m of savings, and “served to obscure and prevent effective” budgetary control.

It does add the council “employs many good, hardworking, dedicated staff”.”


Royal College of Emergency Medicine dismisses bad weather and flu as cause of A and E crisis

“Unacceptable A&E waits are the new normal, doctors declared today, after NHS hospitals suffered yet another worst month on record.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine dismissed excuses about bad weather and flu and urged patients to write to their MPs to demand improvement.

A&E units saw only 85 per cent of patients within four hours in February, worse than the previous low of 85.1 per cent seen in December and January last year. In major hospitals, the figure was 76.9 per cent, also the lowest since records began in 2010, and in some units barely half of patients were dealt with in time. It means 100,000 more people suffered longer delays than last year.

NHS chiefs blamed an inexorably rising tide of sicker patients, with this winter seeing 261,000 more people coming to A&E than last year, up 5 per cent. More of these patients were also ill enough to need a bed, with emergency admissions up 6 per cent to 1.4 million. Wards were about 95 per cent full all winter, well above the 85 per cent estimated to be safe.

Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “Performance that once would have been regarded as utterly unacceptable has now become normal and things are seemingly only getting worse for patients. It’s important to remember that while performance issues are more pronounced during the winter, emergency departments are now struggling all year round.”

In January the heads of half of England’s A&E units wrote to the prime minister to warn her that patients were dying in corridors.

Dr Hassan said: “The current crisis in our emergency departments and in the wider NHS is not the fault of patients. It is not because staff aren’t working hard enough, not because of the actions of individual trusts, not because of the weather or norovirus, not purely because of influenza, immigration or inefficiencies and not because performance targets are unfeasible. The current crisis was wholly predictable and is due to a failure to prioritise the need to increase healthcare funding on an urgent basis.”

He added: “We need an adequate number of hospital beds, more resources for social care and to fund our staffing strategies that we have previously agreed in order to deliver decent basic dignified care. We would urge our patients to contact their MP to tell them so.”

Nigel Edwards, head of the Nuffield Trust think tank, said that A&Es were in their worst shape since 2004.

“The main waiting times targets for cancer and planned treatment are being missed, and there is no sign of recovery,” he said. “Fundamentally, these pressures are driven by a lack of money and staff. If these are not addressed it is inevitable that as difficult as February has been for NHS staff and patients there will be worse to come.”

Figures from the British Social Attitudes survey last week showed dissatisfaction with the NHS up seven points to its highest level since 2007, with most people blaming the government.

A spokesman for NHS England said: “NHS staff continued to work hard in February in the face of a ‘perfect storm’ of appalling weather, persistently high flu hospitalisations and a renewed spike in norovirus. Despite a challenging winter, the NHS treated 160,000 more A&E patients within four hours this winter, compared with the previous year. The NHS also treated a record number of cancer patients over these most pressured months of the year.”

He pointed to figures showing that 22,800 routine operations had been cancelled in January, less than half the number feared.

However, the Royal College of Surgeons pointed out that 62,000 fewer operations were carried out this winter, despite rising demand, because procedures were not scheduled in the first place to help take pressure off A&Es.

Professor Derek Alderson, its president, said: “NHS England’s advice to hospitals to cancel all elective operations in January was a necessary evil under the circumstances. It meant patients avoided the distress of having their operation cancelled after turning up to hospital and it freed up NHS staff and resources to deal with patients needing emergency treatment. However, it also inevitably prevented many patients who are in discomfort or pain from having an operation when they needed it, potentially causing their condition to deteriorate.”

Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said: “The government has let NHS patients down this winter. Every year under this government waiting times get worse and more and more patients face hours on end in overcrowded emergency departments. The brilliant staff of the NHS have been working round the clock in the wind and the snow but they’re being undermined by a government which has refused to give the NHS the resources it needs.”

Source: The Times (pay wall)

UK deaths up 10,000 over 7 weeks – even allowing for bad winter AND flu

“Ten thousand more people died in the first seven weeks of this year than would be expected, the biggest difference since the Second World War.

Loneliness, overstretched hospitals and the crumbling elderly care system could all be contributing to a sharp increase in deaths, which suggests that British life expectancy is about to start falling, academics say. They have called for an urgent investigation after the latest in a string of figures that show older people are dying earlier than expected.

Infant mortality has also risen, with dozens more babies dying in 2016 than the previous year.

After decades of rising life expectancy, progress has stalled in recent years in Britain, while it continues in many other countries. In January The Times revealed that in some struggling parts of the country life expectancy has dropped by a year since 2011.

Now provisional figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 93,990 people died in the first seven weeks of this year, up 12.4 per cent on the average for the previous five years, an extra 10,375 deaths. This is the biggest difference since 1940, when deaths were up by 16 per cent, and the fourth biggest since 1840, Danny Dorling, an Oxford professor who analysed the figures, said.

He said that it was quite remarkable, adding: “People have become a bit immune to this. Five years ago this would have got a lot more attention, this huge number of people dying.”

Writing in the BMJ, Professor Dorling linked the deaths to hospitals that were “struggling to cope” in winter as they were deluged by frail elderly patients with nowhere else to go. “It’s Alzheimer’s, dementia and so on, these are things people are dying of. It’s frail people. People are dying two or three years earlier than they would do.”

Such people may also be more isolated because bus services were reduced and relatives working longer hours during difficult economic times were unable to visit them, he speculated.

He insisted that flu and winter cold could not explain all the deaths and officials must look at deeper causes. Respiratory illness such as flu were responsible for 18.7 per cent of fatalities, barely up from 18.3 per cent in the same period last year. “It ain’t flu and it wasn’t flu before,” he said.

He wants the Commons health and social care committee to investigate, saying the government is “just not interested”.

Caroline Abrahams, of Age UK, said: “It is extremely worrying that more older people are dying during what was a relatively mild winter. Older people have felt the brunt of long-standing cuts to social care and stagnant funding for the NHS.”

Separate ONS figures yesterday showed that deaths of babies under one rose from 3.7 per 1,000 to 3.8 per 1,000 in 2016, the second year in a row they increased after decades of decline.

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat former care minister, said: “The government must urgently examine the cause and what might be driving this disturbing reversal of historic falls in infant mortality. The fact that the NHS is under such strain may well be contributing to this.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are absolutely committed to helping people live long and healthy lives, which is why the NHS was given top priority in the autumn budget, with an extra £2.8 billion, on top of a planned £10 billion a year increase by 2020-21. Along with Public Health England, we will consider this.”


In the first 49 days of this year, an extra person died every seven minutes compared with the five years before. This is not a one-off, because deaths were also higher than normal last year after a jump in early 2015 (Chris Smyth writes).

Because so many older people are dying sooner than expected, life expectancy has stopped increasing. If this year’s trend continues, British lives will start to become shorter, something unprecedented in modern times. The growing chorus from academics demanding investigation deserves to be heeded, but finding the reason will not be easy. The issue goes far wider than the NHS and social care — people’s health is influenced by their jobs, homes and families.

Given the lack of certainty, the risk is that the data will simply become ammunition for political skirmishes about whether “austerity kills”. This makes ministers and the officials who report to them understandably wary of looking into what is happening.

But it was Theresa May who spoke of the “burning injustice” that the poor die earlier than the rich. This gap is growing. Her government should not be afraid of asking why.”

Source: The Times (pay wall)