Mick Scrimshaw shares his initial thoughts on the County Council’s budget proposals for the next financial year…

Yesterday Northants County Council published their draft budget for the next financial year 2019/20. The council will vote on these proposals in February and for the next weeks and months councillors from all parties will need to scrutinise the detail to get a clear understanding of what these financial plans actually mean to the council and to our local residents.
Less than 24 hours since being handed the document I am obviously not yet in a position to give a full and considered view but am happy to share my initial thoughts as a way of hopefully adding to a debate among the public.

My first observation was that the budget was only 84 pages long compared with previous budgets that could be 400-500 pages more than that. I still don’t know if that’s something I need to worry about or whether it will prove to be a good thing. One thing it does show however is that the commissioners are taking a different approach this year and given their historic financial track record that possibly isn’t a bad thing.

On first glance there do appear to be some good proposals included in the budget. Bringing children-in-care back into Northamptonshire from expensive places outside of the county and a better, more productive and efficient partnership working with local councils have to be good things and things Labour have wanted for a long time.

And I certainly welcome the drive to bring back services in-house as this is cheaper and allows better public accountability and more direct control of services. Thinks like decommissioning day care services from PFI contracts and bring residential homes back into NCC ownership and plans to open a nursing and dementia residential home in the north of the county where there is a clear need all appear good moves and most importantly seem to once and for all end the discredited outsourcing model of Next Generation which was a large part of why the council got tint other financial mess it is currently in. Again, something we’ve wanted for years.

There are however still lots of questions and the devil will be in the detail. Experience has taught us not to take things at face value and there are clearly some valid worries about the overall budget. It is reliant for example on this year’s budget being achieved and we already know that many of the original savings in that budget either will not happen or are still very much at risk, and the recent stabilisation plan that was supposed to counter any such problems also has huge amounts of savings that are very risky.

If this year’s budget does not come in on target (and given we are now in December, just a few months from the end of the financial year, that has to be a very real possibility) the government have already given the County Council a ‘get out of jail free card’ with the unusual step of allowing them to use the capital receipts from the sale of their brand new HQ to pay off any deficit. But this is a one-off and unsustainable fix. It’s effectively like not being able to pay your rent one month and having to resort to selling the treasure d wedding present from Great Aunt Lucy. You may save yourself from being evicted this month, but you will still have the same problem next month and the same is true for the County Council. Any savings that are not genuinely found this year will become an extra pressure for the 2019/20 budget and will require mitigating action of some kind which could potentially mean even more cuts in services.

On top of that we all know that demand for services, not least from an ageing population, is growing and while the council acknowledge there will be an extra £25m needed for Adult Social Care they have a track record of under estimating increased demand and any unforeseen demand next year (in the way we’ve had the last few years), has the potential to knock the overall budget off course very early on in the financial year.

Another question and something that is not yet clear to me about the impact of new proposals for libraries. We all know that the original proposals to close some of the counties libraries were controversial and badly handled. If nothing else these cost the council an extra £200,000 in unsuccessfully defending a legal challenge brought by residents, but the budget itself says very little about the detail of the new proposals. The idea as I understand it is for a few of the under threat libraries to be half taken back into council control but without the council paying for the running of them. I heard the leader of the council on the radio this morning explaining that part of this proposal would be to “work with district and borough colleagues”. But what does that mean? If he expects Borough Councils to pick up the running costs of a library that falls under the statutory responsibility of the County Council, that is likely to meet with an unfavourable response and seems to fly in the face of the budget promise to work “effectively with our local partners”. In Desborough for example I know the Town Council are thinking of buying the library building outright but that will still leave an annual running cost of tens of thousands of pounds to be found each year and I’m not sure Desborough residents will be comfortable with this being paid from the precept on top of their normal council tax bills.

This is why I have said the devil will be in the detail and it would be foolish of me to comment more until having a much better understanding of the details behind some of the headlines in yesterday’s announcements. Labour’s priorities are simple; they are about looking after the needs of residents and ensuring our most vulnerable are protected, and our final judgement on whether this budget will achieve those priorities will inform our decision of whether or not to support these proposals in February.