Have Northamptonshire’s commissioners been worth it?

By the time they finish their appointment, Northamptonshire’s two commissioners will have been paid around half a million pounds between them. How have they got on?

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Up until the end of last month, Northamptonshire commissioners Tony McArdle and Brian Roberts had been paid a collective £467,000 since they first started in May 2018. By the time their contract ends on March 31 they will likely have earned more than £500,000.

The pair, who both have long, respected careers in local government, were parachuted into Northamptonshire County Council after its financial implosion in April 2018 on the orders of then secretary of state for local government James Brokenshire.

Their brief was to ensure the finance and governance arrangements of the then on-its-knees council were rebuilt.  Lead commissioner McArdle was to be paid £800 a day, Roberts earning a slightly less day rate at £700, and the Northamptonshire tax payer was to pick up the bill.

What they found

The commissioners arrival at Northamptonshire County Council in May 2018 followed three prior months of total chaos, confusion and at times farce. In February the council’s chief finance officer had issued a 114 notice - the first to have been issued by any local authority in 20 years - a warning the council was at risk of not setting a balanced budget in April. On the last day of February the authority signed off a budget for the next financial year which included making a swathe of service cuts - including the planned closure of the majority of the county’s libraries - to make service reductions of £40m.

The financial meltdown of the council was making headlines around the country and beyond.

The council was also reeling from a best value report from government inspector Max Caller which had laid bare the many failings of the Conservative authority.  As a consequence the government had ordered the authority - and the two tier local government system in Northamptonshire - must come to an end and a unitary system be introduced.

It was into that financial meltdown, with accusations flying left and right, a real concern the council may fold and a totally dejected workforce, that the commissioners arrived. They were not welcomed by all, with some councillors viewing their appointment as a government takeover and campaign group Save Northants Services viewed them as un-neutral team, sent in to work for the Conservative government which had over seen ten years of austerity and cuts to local government funding.

What they did 

Their first job was to get a grip of the council’s finances. After years of static council tax, depleting reserves and spending money supposed to be for capital projects on just keeping the council ticking over, the money had finally run out. The first budget monitoring report for the 2018/19 year published in June 2019 had said the council had managed to set a balanced budget ( a legal requirement) but the commissioners thought otherwise.

In their first report back to the secretary of state written in September 2018, they wrote: “We had no confidence in any of these assertions. The external Auditor and the Best Value inspector had  previously cast doubt upon the culture within which financial information was prepared and the quality of the information produced.

“Our early identification of issues around opaque or absent underpinning data, and concern over the organisational form of the finance function within the Authority reinforced this view. We believed it to be imperative that a financial position be established that we, the Council, and indeed the public, could have confidence in and which would provide a sound basis for taking potentially difficult decisions. We sought one single version of the truth.”

So they called in the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) to review the finances. And it found the situation was much worse than anyone had thought. Rather than balancing its books, the council had overspent by £35m and was looking at a £30m overspend in the current financial year.

Drastic action needed to be taken.

Amid another 114 notice - a second warning it might not balance its books -  they froze non-essential spending. A transformation task force of council officers was set up to look at how things could be done differently. At that time seventy percent of the council’s services were outsourced - a legacy of the failed next generation model introduced a few years earlier by former chief executive Paul Blantern - and so work began to rationalise, renegotiate or terminate the contracts.

In August extraordinary council meetings took place that made national headlines as the local politicians voted to outline a number of core services and implement a hierarchy of need.

This was the biggest correction to a local authority’s services ever undertaken and the commissioners told the secretary of state they were confident they would deliver big savings. However help was needed to do this in the form of selling off the council’s new shiny headquarters at One Angel Square in Northampton for £64m, with the proceeds helping to fill the multi-million pound budget gap after the government gave special dispensation to allow it.

They also took the outsourced finance team back into their control and a new chief finance officer and experienced chief executive Theresa Grant were appointed. 

Another big move was to strengthen the scrutiny function of the council. Max Caller had pointed to barriers to scrutiny as a major problem and so the commissioners appointed the Centre of Public Scrutiny which made a recommendation to scrap the various weak scrutiny committees and instead appoint one central committee that would look in depth at key areas.

The ruling conservative cabinet would now be put under the microscope in the tricky months ahead as they sought to get the council out of the biggest financial mess any council had ever gotten itself into.

By the autumn of 2018, just a  couple of months after their arrival, the direction of travel had been mapped out. But a damning Ofsted inspection published in October about the council’s second largest department, children’s services, landed more problems at their door. The visit rated the service as inadequate and revealed that a staggering amount of children in need (267) were without a social worker and the service was relying on a large number of agency staff to do its work.

The commissioner requested government send in a children’s commissioner specifically just to take charge of the department.

They also made sure the council’s poor complaints procedure was improved and set about trying to engage and listen to residents’ concerns by hosting a series of open meetings in venues across the county.

Based at the council’s offices for at least two days a week they were supported by a chief of staff from government and also took on a deputy chief of staff. They would have regular meetings with the senior bosses, the leader and the cabinet and also regularly brief councillors.

By the end of the financial year 2018/19 it seemed like what had once appeared impossible - a £65m budget gap - had been resolved and the books were balanced in Spring 2019, with even a £4m underspend. This had largely been achieved by following the severe financial plan that had been set out. Cuts to voluntary sector services were made and there were reductions in winter gritting and road maintenance budgets. Hard working staff were also denied a pay rise.

But the uphill task remained as there were still big challenges ahead. They told the secretary of state in their third report in July 2019: “The budget set for 2019/20 is a significant challenge, requiring a savings target of £43m to be delivered. Achieving such a level of savings would be a challenging task in a Council of this size at the best of times.

“It is particularly challenging where the Council has an operating base in which ingrained, often contractually bound, inefficiencies and poor systems remain built-in. We nonetheless believe it to be achievable, given constant attention and firm management of the task, while at the same time undertaking the work to transform that operating base.”

And the state of services concerned them - with a vastly overspending children’s services department causing concern. They told government: “The poor operational state of many of the Council’s services concerns us greatly. Some service improvement measures are in hand, and coupled with the efforts of the Council’s transformation team, alongside the use of some funding through the Business Rates Pilot, further improvements are planned.

“This is all with the intention of ensuring the new unitary authorities get off to the best possible start. However, the Council’s inability to use some of its own finance to invest in rebuilding the services at greatest risk, such as Trading Standards; Waste Management; Highways Management; Emergency Planning; Heritage and Cultural services, and Country Parks remains an anxiety. Central to addressing this is an ability to exercise greater financial control in areas such as Children’s Services.

“This control is critical to both balancing the budget this year and enabling an underspend that allows for investment in these services. It is a major focus for the remainder of this year’s work and is a priority activity for next year’s budget planning.”

Work was heading towards the closedown of the council and the creation of the new unitaries with elections in May 2020. But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and it was decided elections would be cancelled and the council must go on for another year. By now senior staff’s concerns were not only taken up with local government reorganisation but also Covid-19 and the children’s services department was being handed over to an independent trust. The books were however balanced for the second year running in April 2020 with a slight underspend.

The commissioners wrote to the secretary of state in May 2020: “The position of returning a balanced budget for the second year in a row is worthy of note. . . . (It) is a remarkable turnaround, achieved in under two years.

“The Council’s Members, Chief Executive, Chief Financial Officer, other senior managers and staff have all been commended by us for the roles that they have played in making this possible. Without the stability that this position offers, the Council could have done no more than firefight its way through to reorganisation. It now has a financial profile that is comparable to that of other County Councils except for its low level of reserves.”

In a lessons learned report in July 2020 they summarised the improvements across the council and the way the authority was handling the response to the pandemic.

“The county’s effective response to the Covid-19 emergency is testament to its strength in managerial and political leadership. Moreover it is a significant endorsement of the capability of its workforce. On arrival we found a workforce thoroughly demoralised with no sense of urgency or pace. They were as much the victims of mismanagement as were the residents, and this was compounded by a lack of a pay award for several years.

“There was a culture of fear and a malaise among staff who had become accustomed to disregarding budgets and budget processes and had a readiness to accept that things could not be done when in reality they could.

“Over the last year, proper management practices have been restored and the expectations that a corporate body should have for, and with, its workforce are evident in their response.  This improvement has enabled an across-the-board, affordable pay increase of four percent in 2020/21.”

The commissioners now have just two months left in role and the authority is predicting a balanced budget for its final year. The authority has undoubtedly come far from its financial collapse, led by themselves, the senior management team and staff. However the test of the legacy they leave may well be how their successor councils fare in their early days and what residents think of the services provided.

NN Journal asked for an interview with the commissioners but was told they were putting together their final report for the secretary of state and will be happy to speak publicly when that job is done.

What they have said

Tony McArdle gave his most straight talking verdict of the council in a piece he wrote for industry website Public Finance in November 2019. It makes for grim reading.

He wrote: “Even at the end it didn’t recognise the reality of the circumstances it had created for itself: insolvency; diminished, often dangerous services; the distrust of partner agencies; the despair of the local voluntary sector; the sense among staff that their professionalism, dedication and effort was being traduced and betrayed; the total opposition of the county’s MPs and district councils; and the ridicule of the local press. 

“Every council in the land falls out with some of these interests, some of the time. Here, however, was total desertion.

“For a council that had once charmed the sector with its visionary aspirations, the end, when it came, had aspects of the hallucinatory.”

He continued: “The fact that it happened shamed the sector. But the real losers are the residents of the county who, for years to come, will pay for the resolution of problems that need not have arisen and the recovery of opportunities that need not have been lost.”

Controversial moments

The commissioners have not been without their controversy. Their expenses, including hotel bills, when revealed in July 2019 did not go down well, with Unison saying the funds could have been better spent on services.

And Tony McArdle came under criticism when it was revealed that Newton Europe, a company of which he was a paid consultant, had been given a multi-million pound contract to transform the council’s adult social services department.

Verdict of others

The leader of the Labour opposition at NCC Cllr Bob Scott, says the commissioners have done a ‘reasonable job’. 

“I don’t think the administration we had would have turned things around. They weren’t of that mindset. I think they (the commissioners) have done a good job of ensuring they spend the money wisely. An area I think they could have done more is in terms of directing the money to those that need it most, such as early years and the voluntary sector.”

Leader of the Lib Dems Cllr Chris Stanbra, is complementary about what they’ve achieved.

He said: “The county council was in an absolutely dire situation when they were appointed. It was the basket case of local government. Something had to change and I think they have done a good job taking all things into consideration.” In terms of their cost he thinks they are justified, saying ‘you get what you pay for’.

And current Conservative cabinet member at NCC Cllr Jason Smithers is also a fan.

He said: “I think they have given good counsel and brought with them a wealth of experience. It would be unfair however not to mention chief executive Theresa Grant who has been a breath of fresh air and has really dug deep and opened up all of the closets and brought out the skeletons.”