The independent auditor’s interim report on the County Council’s finances was put before the Council’s Audit Committee today. I'm not a member of the committee but I sat in on the meeting anyway. The front cover showed a man walking on a tightrope which was quite apt given the Council’s financial position and what the auditors had to say about it.
The auditors had previously identified the financial resilience of the Council as a significant risk. This interim report highlighted that Northamptonshire County Council were using "significant one-off measures to support the authority's financial position". It gives the examples of over £15 million being released from reserves and having to sell off assets of more than £21m to fund the 2016/17 budget. This is a point I have raised myself several times because up until just over a year ago this would have been illegal, and it is certainly not sustainable going forward. They can’t find that money again this year!
The auditors commented on the fact that the Council were planning once again to rely on their dwindling reserves this year. Whilst they wouldn’t be drawn on what their final report on the accounts would say, the implication was that they may once again feel the need to offer a value for money warning as they did on last year’s accounts. This looks even more likely having looked at their comments about Next Generation Working model (the council’s plan to outsource all of its services to separate stand-alone organisations outside the direct control of the Council).
Next Generation Working has been the Conservative’s big plan for years and although the process has already started the change is about to step up considerably with the setting up of a new company to deliver Adult Social Services and the formation of a Children’s Trust. Despite more than four years of planning, the auditors complained of an absence of a programme plan for the transformation making it impossible "for us to conclude whether the programme was on track or not". Although they did point out that the 2016/17 budget had suggested that "more progress would have been made [by now]".
They went on to question whether the plan would actually bring about the promised savings, saying "it was not clear how transformation plans would drive savings" or where these savings would come from. It also said that the Council’s "services were being designed in relative isolation with no clear understanding of how they will work together and integrate".
Given that the Conservative led Council have been saying for years how their new ideas would solve the financial crisis they have gotten themselves into, this is a fairly damming report. My colleagues and I have been raising concerns about the idea of contracting out all the Council’s services in this way for a long time. It has always seemed to be ideologically driven, based on the idea that if they operate services like a private business then they must automatically be better - regardless of whether there was a plan or any evidence to justify it.
There is nothing wrong with being business like and with running services more efficiently for the benefit of local people. However there is no evidence that the path the Council has chosen to follow will actually result in that. Because given the tens of millions already spent on setting up this project (which according to the independent auditor shows no evidence that it will succeed in its aim of saving money) or improving services, I am once again filled with dread about how our public services will continue to be eroded and put at risk in Northamptonshire.