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.”


“Audit committee calls for review of threshold for misconduct in public office offences”

Again, plenty Owl could might add here!

“The chair of a local authority’s audit and risk assurance committee has written to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, to express concern at the “extremely high threshold” for consideration of Misconduct in Public Office offences.

The letter sent by Cllr Liam Preece of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough came after the local authority had referred certain allegations about some elected members to the police.

However, the police – following a review of the evidence held by the council – reached a determination that there was insufficient evidence to meet the threshold for recording a crime.

Cllr Preece said that the audit and risk assurance committee had accepted the police’s decision, “but were ultimately concerned that there is an extremely high threshold for consideration of Misconduct in Public Office offences which in turn could lead to a lack of public confidence in the process”.

He added in the letter, which can be viewed here, that the committee hoped that the relevant guidance issued to police forces in relation to the threshold criteria for such offences could be reviewed.

“The Committee feel that in cases of multiple serious breaches of the code of conduct, the police should feel more justified to bring charges against elected members to restore and maintain public confidence,” Cllr Preece told the DPP.”


[Clinton Devon Estates] “Fence in Budleigh Salterton is branded ‘an abomination’ “

Picture: Sidmouth Herald


Owl says: check every word and letter of that do ument that promises ‘greater security’ for your what is left of your garden League of Friends – not to mention that of your building should the Hub not be successful …!

“A ‘substantial’ fence – around 6ft high and 100ft long – is causing uproar in Budleigh Salterton.

Residents are angry that it has gone up and a town councillor has described it as ‘an abomination’.

The fence has been erected by Clinton Devon Estates (CDE) on land that it owns and leases to the Budleigh Salterton Hospital League of Friends on an annual basis.

Running across the former Hospital Gardens opposite the new Community Health Hub in Boucher Road, it marks the boundary of the new hub garden and land that CDE has earmarked for development.

Last September, CDE had its outline application – for means of access, proposing two houses to be built on half of the land east of East Budleigh Road – rejected at appeal by East Devon District Council (EDDC).

Now, it appears, it may make a fresh application.

“We are in discussion with the league of friends to agree a more secure long-term lease to provide the hub with a generous, tranquil garden with mature trees on approximately half of the site,” said a CDE spokesperson.

“This will provide easy access for all ages using the hub, as well as an attractive outlook from the building itself.

“We have recently put up fencing to mark the boundary of the new hub garden and any proposals we may have in the future for the remainder of our land at Boucher Road will go through all the required processes and approvals.”

David Evans, chairman of Budleigh Salterton Hospital League of Friends, said: “There is no doubt that our local community will be very disappointed at the erection of a substantial dividing fence down the middle of the greatly-valued hospital garden.”

However, he said the new lease would give ‘greater security’ than before.

“Whilst the league of friends would ideally have preferred to have been able to make use of the whole garden, it has been able to secure long-term access to a valuable and useful green area for the benefit of many,” said Mr Evans.

Councillor Courtney Richards – speaking at a town council planning meeting on Monday – said his phone had been ‘buzzing’ with complaints about the fence.

“I don’t know if Clinton Devon are having a fit of pique, but they are really emphasising that ‘this is ours’,” he said. “There’s very little as a council we can do about it, which is a shame because it borders straight onto a piece of land that’s designated in the Neighbood Plan as an open green space.

“Frankly, I think it’s an abomination, but that’s Clinton Devon’s latest attempt to improve Budleigh Salterton – he said, with his tongue firmly in his cheek.”