Richard Pendlebury: no wonder Northamptonshire council is broke
A £53million HQ, scarf wearing classes and Jamaican jaunts… it’s no wonder Northamptonshire council is broke
- Conservative Northamptonshire County Council needs to save £70million
- Skeleton services could be delivered including libraries closing and bus cuts
- In 2016 the authority was blowing cash on teaching people how to wear a scarf
- The bankrupt authority had ploughed £2.2million into a ‘Roman heritage project’
In February this year Northamptonshire County Council issued a section 114 notice. This was a technocrat’s way of saying the authority had gone bust.
Since then the crisis in one of England’s most rural and quietly prosperous counties has only deepened.
Cuts in central Government funding of local authorities have been blamed for Northants’ woes and the financial crises afflicting other county councils. But accusations of mismanagement, opacity and recklessness have been made against the heads of the Tory-run administration by members of their own party in the chamber.
In the 1980s Labour’s Militant-dominated local authority in Liverpool attracted scorn for its financial profligacy which saw redundancy notices being hand-delivered to council employees by hired black taxis.
At the other end of the political spectrum a shire county whose seven MPs are all Conservative has gone about self-ruin a different way. The result and consequences to the voters are the same. It is, as one local MP said, a ‘national scandal’.
Councillor Matt Golby (right) who represents Duston on Northampton Borough Council and Northampton. There are now calls for him to resign after huge spending cuts were announced
Councillors from Northamptonshire County Council hold an extraordinary meeting in Northampton amid concerns that it will no longer be able to pay for services for vulnerable children and adults
The £53 million Great Copper-Finned Elephant
Northamptonshire County Council has banned all new spending after announcing an overspend of £21m for the 2017-18 period. One Angel Square cost the council £53million
One Angel Square Northampton is an award-winning ‘state of the art’ office building.
Commissioned by Northamptonshire County Council as the authority’s new administrative headquarters, it was supposed to reflect both the county’s cobbling heritage and its cutting-edge future. No expense was spared.
‘The predominantly glazed facades are clad with vertical copper fins, inspired by the traditional leather cutting lines for hand-made shoes, which control solar gain and create a colour and texture, particularly when viewed from acute angles down the streets,’ cooed the publicity blurb.
Designed by the same firm of international architects which recently won the contract for the multi-billion-pound restoration of the Palace of Westminster, One Angel Square eventually cost £53million. The then Communities Secretary Sajid Javid officially opened the council HQ in October last year, giving a rousing speech in the four-storey atrium. And then?
Within months Mr Javid was ordering an investigation into the council while One Angel Square was put up for sale and sold to a Canadian investment firm. The Canadians are now leasing it back to the council, which is desperately looking for tenants to sublet more of the floor space.
Instead of representing all that is good about Northamptonshire the Angel Square building is the biggest physical manifestation of a series of disastrous financial decisions by the ‘secretive and dysfunctional’ leadership.
One Angel Square set the council back millions – now, they are running on skeleton services
The £50 million ‘Next Generation’ fiasco
Northants set course for financial Armageddon in late 2014 when it announced a radical new approach in response to government funding cuts. The council leadership had ‘seen the future’ and would hive off services from County Hall by setting up staff-run mutual companies, social enterprises or private firms. By 2020 the 4,000 council staff would be reduced to only 150.
The then chief executive Paul Blantern said: ‘We are going to have a damn good go at it. I’d rather we go down trying than [do nothing] and go bankrupt.’
In fact Mr Blantern and the other main architects of the ‘next generation’ project managed to do both. The disastrous new approach cost more than £50million to set up, according to Tory backbencher Jonathan Ekins, and has brought the authority to its knees.
‘Is it incompetency, bad management, naivety or could it even be criminality?’ asks Councillor Ekins, who in February proposed the vote of no confidence in the then Conservative council leader Heather Smith which led to her resignation. ‘Were they not skilled enough or downright stupid? It is impossible to understand why they did what they did.’ He added: ‘There was no proof that the next generation project would work.
‘The culture was spend, spend, spend without caring about the consequences.’
Chief executive’s £95,000 Pay-Off
Mr Blantern stepped down as chief executive in October last year. A Freedom of Information Act question revealed that the man who had called for tens of millions of pounds of extra cuts had been given an almost £100,000 golden handshake on top of statutory severance arrangements. The council said this was ‘in order to secure a quick transition in the interests of the council’.
Staff told to take UNpaid leave
Mr Blantern was replaced by an ‘interim CEO’, Damon Lawrenson, who was to be paid £1,150 a day. One of his first suggestions to his beleaguered workforce was they should all take a day’s unpaid leave, which would save the council £300,000. Understandably the issue of his predecessor’s pay off was raised.
Worse was to come. Mr Lawrenson stepped down ‘by mutual consent’ in March after a report by a government inspector called for the council to be scrapped and replaced. It was then revealed his consultancy had been paid a total of £931,000 by the council for work over five financial years.
Troubleshooter on £1,200 a day
Sarah Homer arrived in February to run the shared services organisation which Northants runs with Cambridgeshire County Council. She replaced an official who had received a £152,000 salary and retired with a £66,000 payment for loss of office and payment in lieu of notice. Labour county councillor Danielle Stone said her pay was ‘completely disproportionate’.
£7 million Heritage farm
Last month it was revealed that the bankrupt authority had this year ploughed £2.2million into a ‘Roman heritage project’ at Chester Farm. This money was on top of the £4.9million the council has already invested on the scheme, which is also funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. A cabinet meeting was told the payment was ‘being done through gritted teeth’.
£9,000 Trips to Montego Bay
The council spent £9,000 on jaunts to Jamaica – but are now being forced to pay off loans. Pictured: Half Moon Bay
The cash-strapped council has spent £50,000 on flights in the past three years including six return trips to Montego Bay, Jamaica, worth £9,000. The Mail understands these were for officials to pay welfare visits to a young individual who was in prison on the Caribbean island but to whom the council still owed a statutory duty of care. ‘It’s ludicrous given our debt but it’s the law and the British consulate has refused to carry out the visits for us,’ says a council insider.
The cash was spent on 51 return European trips and 13 return trips outside Europe between January 2015 and February 2018.
£350,000 of payouts to staff
One council worker was awarded £5,500 after she claimed her ‘poorly fitting’ uniform caused a spinal injury. Other payouts between 2006 and 2011 included £200 to a man who had ‘a large splinter in his hand causing injury’ and £12,000 to a woman hit by pots and pans when she opened a cupboard.
23 employees on MORE THAN £100,000
They took home a total of £3.32million in the 2016/17 year, a report by the TaxPayers’ Alliance found. Labour’s shadow cabinet member for finance Mick Scrimshaw called the figures ‘ridiculous’.
And a course on how to wear a scarF!
In 2016 it emerged the authority was blowing cash on a course teaching people how to wear a scarf. In the advertisement on the council’s website, the authority said the event has been designed to teach participants ‘how to wear scarves more effectively for their personal style’.
Source: Read Full Article