‘The signs the county council had are there…we know how this ends’
Concerns over hole in West Northants Council budget
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By Natalie Bloomer
Councillors have spoken of their concerns over West Northamptonshire’s projected budget deficit after being given full details of the authority’s financial pressures last week.
In a report presented to a council cabinet meeting on Friday night councillors were told to expect an overspend of £7.6m in the current financial year. However this includes using all of the £10m contingencies set aside for unexpected cost pressures. This means the actual overspend will be around £17m.
Both the West and North Northamptonshire councils were set up as unitary authorities last year following the financial collapse of the former Northamptonshire county council in 2018.
The cabinet report says that inflation, the cost of living, the ongoing impact of Covid and increased demand for adult and children’s services have led to the situation.
Northamptonshire’s Children’s Trust, which was set up at the orders of central government after the former county council was found to be failing vulnerable children, is facing a total overspend of £7.93m. As the service is funded by both the North and West unitary authorities this places a £4.4m pressure on the West’s budget.
The council report says that the key drivers of overspend in this area are residential and supported accommodation placements which can cost in excess of £10,000 per week.
“The main reason for the forecast overspend relates to placements for children in care which amounts to a total of £7.64m. There are now 44 more children in care compared to April 2021. The current levels of volatility, efficiency of joint funding process, flux of emergency placements and increasing complexity of need, in addition to inflationary pressures, represent a significant financial challenge for the year ahead.
“This is representative of the national picture where there is a shortage of appropriate places in children’s homes and with foster carers, meaning that high prices are often being paid by local authorities who are responsible for placing children in appropriate settings.”
The Children’s Trust has warned that ‘due to the volatility in children’s placements and other challenges’ there is a ‘significant risk’ that this financial position could worsen.
Adult social care is facing pressures across the department and even with £8.4m ‘efficiency proposals’ being identified there is a forecast overspend of just under £7m. Full details of these cuts were not given.
Among other causes the report says the increased pressure is in part due to an extra 500 people requiring support than in April 2021.
Along with financial mismanagement, the costs of adult social care were seen as a key factor in the collapse of the former county council.
Speaking to NN Journal independent councillor Ian McCord who was previously leader of South Northamptonshire Council said:
“The early signs that NCC had are there, we need to use a little from reserves but will be fine next year. Next year we are using a bit from reserves but we have plans to save millions and will be fine. Repeat that until there are no reserves and we know how it all ends.”
Speaking at the cabinet meeting Cllr McCord said:
“Tonight the cabinet is reporting on symptoms and not on causes. To me the root cause is the complete failure to transform. Where is the radical transformation of the new council? 18 months on you still have multiple systems from the former authorities. Operating as three in one...Whilst some of these things were never an overnight fix, at this stage we should have been well underway. I don’t see a start.
“...The unitary model was always clear that just mashing things up together would not solve the finance issues the county faced. The answer was transformation, a radical redesign and overhaul of how local government is delivered. This is not happening. A complete failure to grasp this agenda is the real root cause.”
Labour says the true budget gap is closer to £27.6m, if you include the £10m in cuts being made in an attempt to reduce the overspend. The party is now calling on local MPs to lobby central government for fairer funding. This is something bosses at the former county council also called for but many of the county’s Tory MPs were keen to shift the focus away from wider funding problems.
“I am assured that good management of the budget is in place. However, good management is not sufficient. The four West Northamptonshire MPs must make the case for West Northants, and other local authorities to receive fairer funding,” Cllr Danielle Stone, the party’s finance spokesperson said.
The party is also calling on the council to move to integrated systems rather than what it call ‘grossly out of date inefficient systems’ inherited from the previous local authorities. It also wants to see services brought back in house.
Leader of the Labour group in West Northants, Cllr Wendy Randall, said the council needs to “move quickly and smartly to prevent the looming crisis our residents are facing this winter.”
“I am also calling on our MPs to fight for West Northants. We never see them or hear from them.”
Lib Dem Cllr Rosie Humphries told Friday night’s meeting that there was ‘deep unease about the future’ particularly around adult and children’s services and asked for more details about the proposals to mitigate the increased pressures.
In a statement cabinet member for finance at WNC, Cllr Malcolm Longley, said: "As a council we are taking the necessary steps to manage the financial pressures we’re facing. While we are not alone in this, and many organisations across the country are experiencing the effects from the cost of living crisis and rising inflation, we want to ensure we are on the front foot in managing this.
“We have carried out a robust and thorough financial review and implemented measures to manage and mitigate these issues as far as possible. By working closely with our teams we can continue to deliver vital services for our communities, whilst seeking to identify further opportunities to save money and generate income."
North Northamptonshire Council, is also currently predicting a £4m overspend. However its planned executive meeting was adjourned due to the mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II and has not as yet been re-scheduled.