Friday brief: Councils refuse FOI request to release talks between finance bosses regarding billion pound debt battle
Our last Friday brief of the year brings you some local politics and good news for Northampton's refuse staff
This is our last Friday brief of the year and we will be back in your inboxes again in the new year.
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Northamptonshire’s unitary councils have refused a Freedom of Information request to release details of communication between its finance chiefs, saying to do so would have a ‘chilling effect’ on discussions.
The two councils have reached a stalemate over where the colossal £953m debts of the former ‘bankrupt’ county council will go, and are now set to enter into costly arbitration to settle the issue.
Earlier this month NN Journal submitted an FOI request asking the authority to release details of correspondence between West Northants unitary’s finance boss Martin Henry and his North counterpart Janice Gotts as well as communication between the council’s two legal bosses, but we have had our request refused. The knowledge that the debt had to be shared was known in 2018 and despite being in existence for more than two years the two authorities have not come to agreement.
In similarly worded statements the councils have refused to provide the information to NN Journal saying that to do so would be ‘prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs’ and exemptions under section 35 of the act.
The response from North Northamptonshire Council says:
“ Information to which this section applies is exempt information if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the requested information under this act would, or would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation, or would otherwise prejudice, or would otherwise likely prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
“The qualified person, in this case the Monitoring Officer, authorised under Section 36.5(o)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Act has given their opinion as follows:
North Northamptonshire Council (NNC) and West Northamptonshire Council are currently in negotiations regarding the former Northamptonshire County Council finances. Disclosure of the requested information is likely to cause the loss of ability for council officers to conduct free and frank discussions, share opinions and advice without restrictions, and would adversely affect the ability of both councils to reach a fair resolution for all parties and the residents of Northamptonshire.
“Officers must be given a “safe space” to carry out their duties and the ability to conduct such conversations with the confidence the process will not be prejudiced before a decision is reached. The release of the requested data would likely cause a “chilling effect” with staff from both councils unlikely to offer honest and forthright opinions if it is thought they will be released into the public domain, thus prejudicing the outcome of any negotiations.
“The effective conduct of public affairs will likely be prejudiced as this matter is a dispute between the two authorities, and therefore a contentious subject. Release of the requested information would likely cause curiosity and concern, in turn resulting in a significant increase in enquiries from the general public seeking explanations or reassurance in the ongoing matter. This would place an additional burden on staff time and costs in dealing with such enquiries.
“Whilst we recognise there is a public interest in the outcome of the negotiations, there is a need to protect the process to reach a fair and reasonable decision for both councils, and thus the residents and council tax-payers in both areas.
“The dispute chiefly concerns the capital financing requirements, which includes long term debts for capital projects. Full details of what the debts concern have not been made public by the authorities.
Last month North Northants Council’s external auditor Mark Stocks from Grant Thornton said the authority had to get on with settling the dispute and it was ‘untenable’ that the matter could take another two years. Neither council will know what its asset versus debt ratio is until the legacy county council debt is settled and neither has had an audited set of accounts since they began in 2021.
We will be asking the authority for a review of the decision and also seek to find more information about what the debts have been incurred for.
News in brief
The chief executive of Northampton General Hospital has been away from her role for many weeks, with the hospital saying her absence is due to ‘medical reasons.
Heidi Smoult, who has been chief executive of the hospital since 2021, has not been seen for a number of weeks and the Health Service Journal recently reported she may not return to her £170,000 role.
In October the University Hospitals of Northamptonshire (UHN)- which is a partnership of NGH and Kettering General Hospital - appointed a new chief executive Richard Mitchell, who is also chief executive of the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust (UHL).
His appointment was made by the remuneration and appointment committees of both hospitals and approved by KGH council as governors - as it is a foundation trust.
His appointment follows NHS England appointing a new chair to the UHN Trust Board John MacDonald who is also chair of the Leicester hospitals group.
We recently asked how much Richard Mitchell was being paid and what his contracted hours of work were and the UHN group has said his salary will be revealed in the next annual accounts published in September 2024.
(In the new year we will be launching a year long project looking at the county’s health services. If you have any matter you would like to give us information about, or suggest any lines of enquiry please contact Sarah Ward via the details at the bottom of this post.)
Refuse workers planning industrial action over the Christmas and New Year break have suspended the strikes following constructive talks.
GMB organiser Rachelle Wilkins said Veolia, who employs the workers to deliver a contract it has with West Northamptonshire Council, has given the workers an improved festive bonus and that talks will begin in January about improving pay.
Currently the staff who load the rubbish into the trucks are paid just 8p above minimum wage at £10.50 an hour and drivers are paid £12.50.
Far right group Britain First has said on X (formerly twitter) it will be contesting the upcoming Wellingborough by-election.
Tory MP Peter Bone was recalled on Wednesday and no longer represents the town as 10,505 constituents decided he had to go after a recent scandal in which a parliamentary watchdog found he had bullied, physically and verbally abused and indecently exposed himself to a male employee in 2012 (just two years after he first became MP).
A by-election is expected in February and now the far right group, formed by a member of the British National Party, has appealed for stamps to help its campaign.
Other candidates will include Liberal Democrat Ana Savage Gunn and Labour’s Gen Kitchen. The Green Party announced this week that Will Morris, will be its candidate.
The Daily Express was speculating yesterday that Reform’s chairman Nigel Farage may also fancy standing in Wellingborough. The party has said it will put up a candidate.
Peter Bone may also stand again as in a statement released on Wednesday he said he found the result ‘bizarre’ and pointed to the 68,000 people who had not signed the recall petition.
He said he will have more to say in the new year. It is unlikely he will run as a Conservative, but could stand as an independent or for another political party.
This is our last post and NN Journal will be back in your inbox again in the New Year (most probably January 4th). Merry Christmas everyone.