‘Where’s the scrutiny?’ 200 days into North Northamptonshire Council and questions are being asked

Is the new North unitary council learning any lessons from the past about the role of scrutiny?

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By Sarah Ward

A committee set up to examine how well the new North Northamptonshire Council is operating has not probed a single service run by the authority more than half way through its first year.

Only two meetings have been held of the important scrutiny commission since the council’s creation and the meeting scheduled for later this month has been postponed, meaning that it will likely be November before the next one happens.

The commission has set up a task and finish group to look at the three left behind communities in the area, however, none one of the authority’s high spending departments, such as adult social services, highways or children’s services have been put under the microscope and the situation is leading some councillors on the new authority to become concerned.

There also appears to be an issue with other meetings being cancelled or postponed - the calendar for this month shows that a quarter of planned meetings of the new authority have been scrapped.

Scrutiny has been an issue right from the unitary’s first days as at the first full council meeting in May there was a row about the fact the scrutiny commission would be ineffective, as the chair and vice chair roles were given to members of the ruling conservative administration.

Cllr Wendy Brackenbury - whose husband David is executive member for growth and regeneration - is chair of the scrutiny commission and receives a £13,500 allowance on top of her general allowance of £12,500.

This month’s meeting has been postponed following a scrutiny conference held at Wicksteed Park for councillors earlier this month. The councillors looked at emailed suggestions from residents about the things the commission should be scrutinising and in groups prioritised the items. At the conference it was decided to postpone the meeting.

Asked by NN Journal why, a spokesman said:

“The ideas and suggestions that they (the conference) came up with are to be collated into a draft forward plan which will be tabled at the Scrutiny Commission meeting and the finance and resources committee meeting in November.

“This piece of work will be subject to both member and officer consultation outside of the meeting. The agenda for the commission meeting on 26th October would need to be issued next week on 18th October. This did not allow adequate time for the draft forward plan to be consulted upon and members/officers properly considered. 

“It was agreed at the conference that the commission meeting be pushed back to a later date, where it could be openly debated and determined. It would go to finances and resources the following week.”

The failure of the authority’s scrutiny function was a major issue for the former county council, as evidenced by Max Caller, the government inspector sent in to investigate the council in the months before its financial collapse in the spring of 2018.

His report said:

“The overall impression that the inspection team gained from all the interviews they undertook on scrutiny was that challenge and criticism was to be discouraged as senior members and officers knew best.” 

Current NNC councillor Jim Hakewill was chair of scrutiny at the time. 

The former conservative, who turned independent and is now a member of the Kettering Green Alliance on North Northamptonshire Council, was criticised by colleagues for his role, but says even the ineffective scrutiny that was happening in the months and years preceding the council’s financial collapse, was better than what is happening now.

“There was significant criticism in the Caller report that scrutiny wasn’t welcome but at least scrutiny happened. The lack of welcome was from senior politicians at the former county council. In my opinion we are experiencing the same lack of welcome at North Northamptonshire.”

He continued:

“By the time it finished, the scrutiny at the county council was doing much better but none of what happened to evolve at the county council has been brought forward to the new council. We are not even having a meeting every month.

“We have a budget of £300m and we have not scrutinised a single line of departmental spend in any detail whatsoever.

“We need to scrutinise how individual budgets are going and how well the two unitary councils are working together.

“The children’s trust has been operating for almost a year and we have no end of year figures. If someone asked us how it is going, we could not say - the whole point is, we don’t know.

“If local people have had their fingers burnt before, it has to be said, no scrutiny at all has to be ten times worse.”

Conservative Mark Dearing is a member of the scrutiny committee.

He said:

“I think it could have moved quicker than it has done. There was a shadow authority running for one year so you could say, ‘why did the people doing that not get something done sooner?’” 

Cllr Dearing says an issue he would like to see before scrutiny is how the authority’s planning department is operating.

Alongside the scrutiny commission is a finance scrutiny committee which has also looked at very little apart from a finance report which had already been to the executive.

Labour councillor Mark Pengelly is the chair and said despite not having much on the agenda so far his committee had been effective in finding out that there was an issue with high levels of vacancies at the new authority. 

“I think we’ll see things moving forward quickly from now on,” he said.

The chair of scrutiny, Cllr Brackenbury, said she thinks scrutiny is working well when asked by NN Journal if the lack of content at meetings was acceptable.

She said: ​​

“At the conference I spoke of how I think scrutiny should work in North Northamptonshire; I said we want to work with the executive in both a challenging and constructive way. We want to make sure that the executive delivers on the corporate plan that we as a council will approve and where we think that objectives are not being met, we should question why they aren’t. 

“We want to scrutinise issues that our residents and stakeholders are concerned about and make recommendations to the executive and council on how improvements can be made. We want to ensure that the budget is robust and that we are getting value for money for our residents. I added that we want to make sure that our work adds value to North Northamptonshire and that scrutiny is viewed positively.

“To do these things, we need to have a well-developed workplan that sets out what we want to scrutinise but also allows us flexibility to deal with any issues as they arise. The conference allowed members from both scrutiny committees to come to a consensus on the matters members want to add to the workplan, which will be agreed at the next Scrutiny Commission and Finance Scrutiny meetings.

“So the answer to your question is, yes, I do think that scrutiny is working well. 

“Examples include the important Levelling Up Communities task and finish group set up after considering the scoping document brought to the last meeting and the Outside Bodies Scrutiny Panel, recommendations from which went to council. 

“The Finance and Resources Scrutiny Committee, chaired by Cllr Mark Pengelly has looked at the proposed new capital approval process and will be focussing on the draft budget.

“Once the Council’s Corporate Plan and the Scrutiny Workplan have been agreed we can start scrutinising other really important issues.”

In contrast to the north unitary the west unitary has looked at a number of services through its three different scrutiny committees, such as the funding for the North West relief Road, the council’s tree policy and the performance of children’s services.

The date for the next scrutiny commission meeting for NNC is November 23.

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