2018/19 County Councillor Adam Brown’s Report for Bugbrooke Division
It is my pleasure to provide the following report which covers my 2nd year as the County Councillor for Bugbrooke Division. Over the past 12 months I have attended events across the division and met dozens of residents during the course of my work. Whilst the County Council clearly has a long way to go, this has been a year when we have confronted the challenges before us and started to turn things around.
2018/19 at Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) has been defined by the fallout
from the tumultuous events of last year. After the “Best Value” report by Government inspector Max Caller and the departure of Cllr Heather Smith as leader of NCC, Cllr Matt Golby was elected as the new leader of the Conservative group and the Council. In May the Secretary of State announced the appointment of two Commissioners to oversee the finances and governance of NCC, and shortly
afterwards a new Chief Executive, Theresa Grant, arrived at County Hall.
The initial objective of the new team in charge at NCC was to establish the true
extent of financial pressure on the organisation. Consequently a second Section 114 notice was issued by the Chief Finance Officer in July of 2018, warning of a budgetshortfall of approximately £80m. A letter sent to members of the county council by the CFO said that the financial situation the council found itself in was because of “poor or ill-advised decisions taken” between 2014 and 2017. The Section 114 notice prohibited any new spending and the legally imposed restrictions on NCC’s finances were only lifted in March of 2019.
Following the dire warnings in the summer drastic measures were imposed.
Contracts and procurement processes have been reviewed in every department,
automatic replacement of vacant roles has ceased and employment practices
revised to move away from agency staff. Overall a significant package of savings
has been achieved, amounting to around £40m. The vast majority are not cuts, the
process has been about getting maximum value for Northamptonshire’s pounds and
pence. This drive for maximum value means that as we approach the end of the
financial year we are increasingly confident of delivering a truly balanced budget.
It is an inescapable fact that the budget has only been balanced because the
Commissioners have secured an agreement from Government to allow NCC to use
capital receipts to eliminate the historical deficit and replenish reserves.
Approximately £40m from the sale of One Angel Square (the County Council’s HQ)
has been used for these purposes.
While the sentiment that “the County Council has no money” abounds, we are in fact planning to spend a gross budget of £618m in the coming year. This includes a Council Tax rise of 4.99%. Even after this rise the county still has the second lowest county tax rate in the country. The additional funds will provide greater financialstability and provide an opportunity to invest in areas people have said are most important to them. The increase amounts to an additional 75p to £1 a week for the 70% of county residents which live in Bands A-C properties. This raises an additional £5.78m for council. This additional income will be used to:
– Provide greater financial resilience
– Provide a more sustainable financial foundation for any future Unitary Councils.
– Provide extra £475,000 to permanently reinstate the previous winter gritting and winter maintenance of roads.
– Allow us to stop plans to charge for community use of schools by uniformed and
– Provide an additional £1.2m for Children’s Services.
– Reverse plans to charge for higher specification community equipment.
– Provide an extra £673,000 towards independent adult social care placements.
As a Conservative I do not take any proposal to increase taxes lightly, especially in the current climate. However given that will remain a low-taxing county and it will enable us to invest or reinvest in areas people have told us are important, I firmly believe this is the right thing to do.
Local Government Reform
Following the Caller report, Government determined that Northamptonshire should
put forward proposals to form two new unitary authorities: one comprising of
Northampton, Daventry District and South Northants, to be known as “West
Northamptonshire; and another covering Wellingborough Borough, Corby Borough
and East Northants, to be known as “North Northamptonshire”. At the end of August councils in Northamptonshire voted in favour of a move to unitary authorities. Of the 8 councils (7 districts + NCC) only Corby voted against the joint bid to split the county into North and West.
It is fair to say that I believe unitary authorities are a better way to run local government than the two tier system we have at present. The success or otherwise of any council depends upon the ability of those running the organisation and the prevailing conditions in which it has to work. In the context of the County Council’s continuing financial difficulties it was therefore not a simple decision for me to support the proposals put before us. The deficit faced by NCC at the time of submitting our bid to Government was £64m with the potential for this figure to rise significantly as auditors continued to clarify the final outturn from the previous year’s budget. Clearly any new authority would be working with one hand tied behind its back were it to inherit that deficit, and therefore I believed that it was an inescapable
fact that Northamptonshire would need special dispensation from MHCLG to use
capital receipts to clear that deficit (a dispensation allowed later in the year as I set out above) if we are to start life as West Northamptonshire with a clean slate.
Debt repayments are also a significant burden on the County Council’s annual
budget but it is the deficit issue that is most pressing. The bid document that was presented to the Secretary of State therefore laid out a number of challenges, and it is these challenges that form the most important element of the bid. They effectively make the local councils’ support for change contingent upon government recognising and rising to these challenges, namely; the aforementioned clean sheet; the provision of additional tools to fund transition costs such as a business rates pilot; recognition of the need for public service reform e.g. in the form of an integrated care system pilot to alleviate the strain place upon councils by adult social care; additional investment in Northant’s infrastructure to compensate for the cut backs on investment in recent years and allow for forthcoming growth. With the bid now with the Secretary of State, the challenges laid out form criteria against which we will be able to judge government’s willingness to support Northamptonshire through our difficulties. Without these challenges and the clear demands for reasonable assistance, I would have been unable to support the proposals, but I have on the record assurances from council leaders that they will be fearless in holding government to account and I will assist them wherever possible. The government has given us one option for a solution to the current difficulties and asked us to submit a bid within that very tight criteria in order to provide local input to the process. It is therefore incumbent upon ministers and our members of
parliament to ensure that their solution is indeed a solution and not greater failure in a different name. At times I was highly tempted to vote against the proposals, and I weighed up very carefully what would be best for residents in the long term. Ultimately my mind was made up by my belief that this is our most realistic chance of resolving the delivery issues being suffered by services that the most vulnerable members of the community rely upon. Voting against these proposals ultimately would have been a futile gesture of protest when having all 8 Northamptonshire Councils around the table arguing the case with government allows us to at least exert some influence over what comes next. We now await confirmation from the Secretary of State that he will be placing the order for the new authorities to be formed. In the meantime there is no time to lose and the West Northamptonshire Joint Committee met for the first time at the end of March. This Committee on which I am serving, will start to decide on the structures of the new authority; how the first Chief Executive and senior officers will be appointed; and how the provisional authority can move
towards permanence without excessively impinging upon the work of current
Despite the well-publicised difficulties that the County Council faces I continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the voices of residents in our Division are heard by the Council’s leadership team. Through my work on the Overview & Scrutiny committee I have been vocal in my support of the “Early Years” providers who have been severely let down by the systems in place at NCC, and I have passed a motion formally positioning the Council against the two proposed Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges near Blisworth and Milton Malsor. I have also highlighted concerns over winter gritting brought to me by residents in several villages, and successfully lobbied out leadership for a reversal of the proposed cuts to Scouting and Guides groups. During that time I visited the Brownies in Pattishall to observe one of their meetings and I was hugely impressed by the hard work of the Volunteers and how much enjoyment the girls got from being part of the group.
If these are to be the last 12 months of Northamptonshire County Council then my
objective is to continue the steady improvement of the past few months and leave
the best legacy possible for “West Northamptonshire”. There is no doubt that we will continue to face challenges as an authority but we must face them with honesty and resoluteness in order to drive the changes that the public wants. I will end simply by inviting all residents to contact me if they have any concerns or opinions, I am always happy to discuss in person, by phone or via email and I wish everyone the best for the year ahead.
For further useful information about Nether Heyford Parish Council and full contact details for the clerk and the councillors please visit our Nether Heyford Parish Council page.