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.”