Tory MP breaks ranks on Northamptonshire council crisis
From The Guardian: A Conservative MP has said ministers need to urgently “learn the lessons” from the financial collapse of Tory-run Northamptonshire county council if they are to prevent more councils slipping into insolvency.
Andrew Lewer, the MP for Northamptonshire South, said that while mismanagement had fuelled the Northamptonshire crisis, the council was also a victim of underlying financial pressures affecting all local authorities with social care responsibilities.
Lewer’s comments will be seen as a breaking of ranks both with the government and with his six fellow Tory MPs in the county, who have up to now sought to present the council’s problems as unrelated to wider funding issues.
His intervention came as Northamptonshire county councillors prepare to take further steps towards drawing up a drastic cuts plan that they hope will close a £70m black hole in the accounts over the next few months.
Lewer has written to the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, James Brokenshire, and the secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock, to request a meeting to discuss the council funding crisis and ensure the wider lessons of Northamptonshire are heeded.
“A culture of poor performance and decision-making in Northamptonshire county council fuelled the current crisis, but there are bigger, national drivers that also have a significant bearing on the position of not only Northamptonshire, but other local authorities too,” said Lewer.
“Adult social care demand from a rapidly increasingly elderly population is the big elephant in the room. We need to have a discussion on how future local government is structured, financed and delivered, especially for this crucial and costly sector.”
Council social care bosses in England warned earlier this year that care services for older and disabled adults were on the brink of collapse because of funding pressures. The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that adult social care faces a £3.5bn funding gap by 2025.
Northamptonshire councillors will discuss a proposed action plan which calls for “radical service reductions and efficiencies” in areas including children and adult social care, as well as a programme of staff redundancies, at a council meeting on Thursday morning.
Although it is anticipated no precise details of the cuts will be put forward at the meeting, councillors are expected to approve a “hierarchy of priorities” approach to the cuts which will see some services restricted to the legal minimum, and non-core services eliminated altogether.
Councillors will also vote to formally accept a section 114 letter from the council’s director of finance, published last month, which sets out in humiliating detail the extent of Northamptonshire’s financial problems, and the poor decision-making that led to it being declared technically bankrupt in February.
The meeting comes amid growing concern in local government circles that more councils – many of them Conservative-run – could follow Northamptonshire into draconian cuts to try to stave off huge budget shortfalls, with Somerset and Lancashire among those reporting financial stresses.
Last week it emerged that East Sussex county council was drawing up plans to move to a bare legal minimum level of services – which it called a “core offer” – to cope with a growing budget shortfall that if not addressed would see it bankrupt within three years.
A spokesperson for the LGA said: “More and more councils are struggling to balance their books and others are considering whether they have the funding to even deliver their statutory requirements.”
Meanwhile, the Conservative leader of one of England’s biggest councils has warned that county councils face having to make “unpalatable” cuts to services next year, with the stripped-back “core offer” approach adopted by Northamptonshire and East Sussex in danger of becoming “the norm.”
Paul Carter, the leader of Kent county council, who was speaking as chair of the county councils network, said: “Northamptonshire has not managed austerity well and there is evidence of poor management and decision making. However, this shouldn’t detract from the significant challenges facing all counties.
“We will work hard to deliver the savings required this year, but the scope for making deliverable savings has dramatically reduced and decisions for next year will be truly unpalatable if we are to fulfil our statutory duties.
“It is clear that unless government finds a long-term solution to council funding and a fairer distribution of resources between authorities, other well-managed county councils could find themselves unable to balance the books.”