At yesterday’s cabinet meeting of Northants County Council the latest monthly financial report was presented. Now more than half way through the financial year, it has become a monthly ritual for all opposition parties to line up and ridicule the Conservative administration and I was happy to oblige.
The truth is the council is in a real mess. They are currently expecting to overspend by over £30 million in Adult Social Care and Children’s Services. This has been mitigated slightly by cuts to services from other departments (Highways being an obvious one with projects around Kettering having been cancelled, or indefinitely delayed), and dipping into reserves. As things stand at the moment it is going to be a real struggle to keep to the budget and there is no doubt that they will have to dip further into reserves which are already at the minimum they are allowed to be. And when they do, they will have to somehow put the money back next year when they are already planning even more cuts at the same time knowing that service pressures such as an increase in those needing elderly care are rising.
Some other earmarked reserves are already less than they will need to be anyway, and again using Highways as an example, there is money put aside for winter road maintenance but even if we only have a mild winter this is half a million pounds less than it needs to be.
All in all the financial position is dire, and as I pointed out to the cabinet, the Local Government Association have said that Northants County Council are 27th of all 27 County Council’s in the country able to fund their services (I don’t think they were happy I announced that publically).
This position hasn’t occurred over night and it is a combination of a variety of reasons. Firstly massive cuts from the Conservative-led government have had a huge impact, but so has the reluctance to accept the position by the Conservative Council over many years. The administration have been obsessed by having the lowest council tax in the country which is great in theory, but has left us with some of the worst services with an every decreasing level of care for our elderly (we pay nursing homes less per resident than most, if not all Councils) and damning OFSTED reports into Children’s Services which left vulnerable children in our care at risk and has forced the government to step in to monitor the service.
And it’s not as if they weren’t warned. The Labour group has been telling them since before they set their budget that it was at risk and unlikely to be delivered. We also came up with a series of concrete proposals designed to help which were ignored. We suggested among other things, developing some land the council owned into an industrial park rather than selling it off to a private developer. This would have enabled us to help new and small businesses but would have brought millions of pounds of revenue into the council every year from now and into the future. A suggestion by the way that the Tories are now belatedly looking at.
The Council have also had an ideological fixation in reducing the size of the council and having services carried out by third-party organisations or private companies risking a loss of control. In my opinion this has been driven by a belief that all private is always good, and all public is always bad regardless of whether or not that is true in an individual case. Yesterday for example they agreed to extend the contract with the private contractor who look after the counties roads without going out to tender to other companies and certainly without considering the council doing the work themselves.
All in all the situation is a real mess and I suspect when the draft budget for next year is published in December we many see some radical and severe cuts to services that have never been considered before. Frightening times.
Cllr. Mick Scrimshaw
Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance