An emergency report has gone to Northamptonshire County Council’s cabinet meeting setting out their bleak financial position.
The report highlights the pressures on demand that the council is currently facing which is something the Labour opposition raised as part of the budget process earlier this year. It should hardly come as a surprise
It goes on to talk about focusing on statutory services which suggests cuts to non-statutory services. This is deeply worrying as it means that the council could be thinking of withdrawing from any and every service they are not legally obliged to deliver. We already know there are some Conservative councillors’ who ideologically believe in smaller government and it seems that austerity could simply being used as an excuse to achieve that.
It calls for a focus on preventative work to stop people needing higher cost care and support later. Again this is something that the Labour opposition has raised time and time again and in particular around the funding cuts to the voluntary sector. Can it really be that they are only now beginning to see the sense of spending less money now on working with people? So as to stop the need for intense and expensive support later? Where have they been?
The report explains the uncertainties that Brexit is having on public services during an unprecedented rise in demand. This is one of the reasons devolution and local government reform appears to be dead in the water. Itself this leaves a black hole in the council’s medium term financial strategy.
This is because against advice to the contrary they included millions of pounds of savings in their budget this year based on becoming a unitary authority. The County Council’s ideas about how that would work looked doubtful with government support, but without it this idea is going nowhere.
The report hints time and time again that central government is letting councils down, for example over the indecisiveness over business rates. But Northamptonshire County Council needs also to do things themselves!
The recent appointment of the new post of a Commercial Director (£137,000 per year!) will hopefully lead to the sort of revenue generating schemes the Labour Group have been calling for for years. But these schemes do take time and so it needs to be a priority.
My worry is that his emphasis will simply be on commercialising the council’s services rather than creating the levels of new revenue that are needed. Once again this will be putting pressure on local tax payers. It has been a reluctance to do this previously that has already led to the council’s commitment to raise Council Tax over the next few years to the highest levels they are legally allowed to without a referendum.
While the report talks about NCC being underfunded by the current funding system, this is not new. It was the case for all those years then the Tories chased cheap votes by undermining the council’s funding. They did this by ignoring the building pressures and not putting forward small sensible rises in Council Tax. This led to the current position where they are now left with no alternative but to increase tax at the maximum rate allowed.