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27.08.19

Stabilising Northamptonshire County Council

Source: PSE: Aug/Sep 19

Theresa Grant, chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council, shares the authority’s remarkable journey from financial crisis to delivering a balanced budget, and discusses the road still ahead.

The story of the demise of Northamptonshire County Council dominated local government media and indeed the national media for much of 2018. The authority became the poster-boy of local government failure, of an out-of-control organisation hurtling at pace towards interminable financial and service decline. 

When I became chief executive in July of last year, I was the fourth person to hold the post in less than nine months. At one point the in-year deficit stood at £64m. No reserves were left and the council had just issued its second Section 114 notice of the calendar year, banning all but essential spending. 

It is against this backdrop that I, my new leadership team, the secretary of state’s commissioners, our cabinet and staff can rightly be satisfied with the progress we have made over the last ten months. 

We are now a local authority which has delivered a balanced budget using nothing but our own resources. This balanced budget, delivered with an actual underspend in early July, was the first time the county council had balanced a budget for many years. 

Additionally, we have begun to replenish exhausted reserves – used repeatedly to bail out unbalanced budgets - and finally been able to remove our Section 114 notice.

For the first time in its recent history, this is a council which is getting a grip on its budget through effective financial control and discipline – something so lacking here over the past few years.  

Ordinarily, any organisation succeeding in making such enormous strides forward within such a short space of time would be in remarkably good health. However even with all the progress made, finances remain extremely fragile and the momentum for change must increase. 

The commissioners and I share the view that the challenges in Northamptonshire did not start as financial issues. Rather over a considerable period of time poor decisions were made, meaning key functions and services suffered as the organisation pursued fanciful and ineffective schemes. 

These bad decisions left service areas without any realistic plans for transformation while the resulting financial issues were not dealt with as they arose, but were simply disguised. For example, the public health grant was misused to prop up services, not to mention the running down of reserves over a period of time.

Joe GiddensPA ArchivePA Images

Image: c.  Joe Giddens - PA Archive

So, while we have introduced strict financial discipline and rigorous governance to put the county council on a more stable footing, it really is only the start of the journey and so many other challenges now require our focus. 

While across the country, councils were embarking on true transformation to not only deliver efficiencies but to improve services, Northamptonshire was pursuing its own fanciful models and not getting to grips with its growing problems. 

So now, having stabilised the financial position of the council, we have begun a carefully constructed and extensive transformation programme to address some of the significant services challenges. This includes focusing on the county’s children’s services, which as we heard from government back in May will now be placed in a standalone trust working across both the new unitary authorities. 

It is this transformation activity which will drive through more financially sustainable practices while at the same time facilitate significant service improvements for our residents and communities.

This of course is an essential element of preparing for the transition into the county’s two new unitary authorities which the former communities secretary James Brokenshire announced earlier this year. If these new councils are to succeed, it is essential they take over responsibilities for a much improved and transformed set of services. 

The challenges for the next financial year are therefore three-fold. 

Firstly, we have to ensure that the financial integrity which has been re-discovered continues and the council further stabilises its position and the sustainability of its services. 

Secondly, we must drive forward our programme of transformation to deliver real and lasting improvements to the way services are delivered. This is essential not just for our communities but also to ensure that the opportunities presented by unitary governance in the county are grasped and not squandered. 

Thirdly, and this one is the one that most keeps me awake at night, we must continue to deal with other legacy issues as they may emerge. Am I certain that we uncovered everything that needs revealing? Absolutely not. But as and when issues emerge we will ensure they are dealt with properly and appropriately. 

I want Northamptonshire to stop being a by-word for failure. I want people to talk about this county as a place which successfully faced up to problems many thought were insurmountable. 

We have a very long way to go in this regard and finances are still very fragile but we are now moving in the right direction and the county can now start to hold its head up a little higher. 

It will be an interesting journey over the next two years to create the new unitary councils and Northamptonshire County Council’s staff and members are up for the challenge.

Top Image: c.  Joe Giddens - PA Archive

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