Leader resigns after Whitehall report calls for failing council to be split up

The leader of Northamptonshire County Council has announced her resignation after a government report recommended the impoverished authority should be split into two smaller unitary councils.

Heather Smith said it “wasn’t an easy decision” to leave the council in such difficult times but cited the “personal pressure of vicious public attacks” by local MPs who she claimed were using her as a scapegoat.

In November, the communities and housing secretary, Sajid Javid, appointed former Hackney LBC chief executive Max Caller to begin an investigation of the county’s finances.

The review was completed this week and heavily criticised the way the council handled its finances, saying that “living within budget constraints” was not part of the authority’s culture.

“The inspection team believe that a new start is required for the residents of Northamptonshire which can deliver confidence and quality in the full range of local government services,” Caller wrote.

“This can best be achieved by the creation of two new unitary councils, one covering the area of Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire and the other encompassing Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough. These should be established following elections to be held in May 2020 and be in operation commencing at their first annual meeting.”

The damning report suggested Javid should “give serious consideration” to whether commissioners should take over the running of all services in the county, except planning.

Caller went on to say that the council “did not respond well, or in many cases even react” to criticism it had received either internally or externally, adding that – despite Northamptonshire’s own claims – it had not been treated badly by the government’s funding formula.

In addition, he wrote that there were rifts between the council and other local public-sector services, such as NHS partners and smaller councils, which had created distrust and made it unlikely Northamptonshire would be able to deliver its promises.

Smith has claimed that the government did not provide fair funding for the authority in “one of the most turbulent times it has ever known.”

The council was forced to implement a section 114 spending ban in February, citing “severe financial challenges” and leading to extreme budget proposals that included “regrettable” plans, such as closing 21 small libraries and freezing all staff pay for the next year.

There has been further controversy in the last week, as bosses from the Department of Health and Social Care began meeting with Northamptonshire’s director of finance to investigate whether funding delivered to the authority was used for the purposes it was initially earmarked for.

Javid will now consider the proposals put forward by Caller and make an official proposal to Westminster detailing his future plans for the authority, which could include splitting it into unitary authorities or sending in commissioners to take charge.

Top image: Yevtony

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