The first ever woman to be installed as leader of Northamptonshire County Council said her new role was a “blessing, not a curse” in her maiden speech today - despite the authority’s unenviable financial situation.
In the last hour Councillors have officially elected Councillor Heather Smith (Con,Oundle) as the new leader of the council, following the decision of Councillor Jim Harker (Con, ISE) to step down from the role after 11 years’ service.
Councillor Smith, who has lived in the Oundle area for more than 30 years and has served as a councillor for nine years, used her first speech to outline the difficulties faced by the authority in the coming years - particularly in looking after the growing number of elderly and vulnerable adults.
But she said her priority would be to push ahead with the council’s “next generation” plan to trim its core workforce to around 200 and deliver series through four separate trusts.
And despite the county having to make more than £65 million of cuts this year alone, she said she relished the challenges ahead.
She said: “I am proud to be elected leader of this council. Some might say with the challenges local government in the round is facing such a task is a curse rather than a blessing. I couldn’t disagree more.
“Here in Northamptonshire we sit at the very heart of the country. We are at the heart of its transport infrastructure and as such we are therefore at the heart of elements of its economy and in many respects we are at the heart of its heritage and history. It is a great county and one I am proud to be leader of.”
Councillor Smith pointed to, what she said were achievements by the Conservative administration over the past decade, including “pioneering” work to join up fire and police services.
She said a main source of pride was the improvement to children’s services, rated “inadequate” in 2013, but recently lifted out of special measures following an improved Ofsted result.
She said the next 12 months will see her energy focussed on the plans to establish a countywide Children’s Trust, integrating social care with health services and making sure the council delivers in full its challenging budget.
But she added that only when this transformation of services is finished could plans to become a unitary authority be considered.
“As leader it is my view that only when this significant transformation is complete, will we really understand what the remaining Local Government landscape will look like and also how the changing way government funds us will manifest itself,” she said. “It is only at this point, that we should even begin to contemplate the potential reshaping of local government within the county.”
Councillor Smith believes that her priority areas will have the biggest benefit for improved services in the county and also the potential for the biggest efficiency savings for taxpayers.
But she said the resolution passed at the last full council to commission an independent review into “local government structures” in Northamptonshire still stands.
Highways chief loses front bench role in cabinet re-shuffle.
Councillor Smith also unveiled a re-shuffled eight member cabinet at the meeting this morning, which has seen long running portflio holder for finance, Councillor Bill Parker (Con, Clover Hill) moved to the adult social care department.
And long running cabinet member for highways Councillor Michel Clarke (Con, Hackleton and Grange Park) is without a cabinet post altogether, after being replaced by Councillor Ian Morris (Con, Silverstone).
Councillor Smith said: “This is a team which combines new faces with experienced frontbenchers and I am looking forward to them all starting work in their areas – whether they are taking on new responsibilities or continuing in their work.”
The new cabinet is as follows:
Heather Smith – Leader of the council
Andre Gonzales de Savage – Deputy leader and cabinet member for public protection
Robin Brown – Cabinet member for finance
Ian Morris – Cabinet member for transport, highways and environment
Bill Parker – Cabinet member for adult social care
Matt Golby – Cabinet member for children’s services
Suresh Patel – Cabinet member for corporate parenting
Sylvia Hughes – Cabinet member for public health and wellbeing