Northamptonshire is not somewhere you would expect to make world wide news. Yet in 2018 the New York Times (more used to doing an exposé on Donald Trump’s finances than reporting on English local government) reported the headline ‘As Austerity Helps Bankrupt an English County, Even Conservatives Mutiny’. The legendary incompetence of the Conservative run administration in Northamptonshire has reached such extremes that one local paper in Croydon last year issued warnings of ‘Doing a Northampton’. How did we get to the stage where the actions of a local authority were being used as a modern morality tale?
Our story begins around fifteen years ago when the Conservatives took power in Northamptonshire. Committed to a low tax ideology they kept taxes artificially low for years, increasing debt to a staggering 1.7 billion (equivalent to £2,400 per resident) leading to them using up their reserves. Another problem was the decision to farm out services to not for profit businesses and charities which led to disastrous fragmentation and in many cases higher costs.
By February 2018 auditors claimed that the Council’s budget if voted on ‘will be unlawful’ and after the removal of the sitting Conservative council leader, inspectors found a regime which was poorly managed and lacking control over the finances.
The council was forced to issue a Section 114 notice, stopping any expenditure which was not needed to safeguard the vulnerable. This was the first time in 20 years that such an order was put in place, as there was clearly an inability to balance the budget. Later in the year an unprecedented second section 114 notice was necessary and it was noted that the council had ‘no financial resilience’. The Government appointed commissioners to try and fix the mess, having to report back every 3 months on progress.
It is not surprising that the New York Times reported in its article that the ordinary public were pretty annoyed by these antics. ‘Throngs of residents’ were apparently yelling out ‘criminals’ and ‘Tory councillors wanted for crimes against the people of Northamptonshire’.
Pretty much since then the Council has had to take some extreme measures in order to balance the books. They had already wasted huge amounts of money on a new HQ which they have now been forced to sell back and then rent for 2 million a year, hardly value for money. More importantly children’s services have suffered, with a report in 2019 highlighting ‘the serious and widespread safeguarding concerns’. The commissioners found that these services were ‘chaotic’ with the amazing feat of being ‘one of the worst performing yet most expensive in the country’.
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As a result of such poor management the long suffering residents of Northamptonshire are now facing a huge tax bombshell when the new unitary authorities come into effect in May. In Corby, which now falls under the new ‘North Northamptonshire Unitary Authority’ one local report highlights council tax bills are set to triple.
Although the council’s finances have begun to improve, all credit for this should go to the commissioners which have had to deal with such a basket case of an administration, painstakingly trying to put it on to some sort of stable footing.
With local elections coming in May, residents will have a chance to pass their verdict on this sorry tale of poor management as people vote across the country. But there are wider questions on the financial sustainability of local authorities across the country after years of cuts and austerity.