Call for former chief executive to answer questions over Northants County Council

Former chief executive Paul Blantern
Former chief executive Paul Blantern

A call has been made for the former chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council along with other senior officers to be summoned back to the authority to answer questions.

Conservative councillor Jason Smithers made the request at today’s (Wednesday) finance scrutiny meeting at County Hall.

Cllr Smithers, who represents the Higham Ferrers ward, wants former long-serving chief executive Paul Blantern along with his replacement Damon Lawrenson and former senior officers who have left the council over the past 12 months to come back and answer questions about how the council got itself in such a severe financial mess.

He said: “Officers are not here to face the music.

“Why can we not call them back?

“If it is clear that there was negligence in how the failure of the county council has happened, let’s get these individuals back and hold them to account.

“It is clear that the councillors were not running this council.”

Conservative cabinet member Michael Clark, who took up his role in March, told Cllr Smithers: “I am fully in sympathy with your sentiments about why we can’t call back people who are no longer with the council.

“But we do not have the legal powers to summons people back.

“We could request then to come and account for themselves.

“A number have sustained considerable reputational damage on their CVs as a result of the decisions that we have taken over the last two years.

“However we cannot excuse ourselves.

“Officers may lead by the nose but it was up to us to approve the advice given.”

Paul Blantern ran the council from 2010 and left in October 2017.

His replacement Damon Lawrenson had acted previously as the authority’s chief financial officer.

As a consequence of the financial failings of the council, central government has sent in two commissioners to oversee the authority for the next two years.

Government also ordered that NCC is abolished and replaced by a unitary governance system.

Cllr Clarke said the reason the council had got into such a problem was not because of insufficient funding from central government but because of a culture of councillors deferring to officers and lack of regard to budgets.

He said: “There is general consensus that the officers held too much sway over decision making.

“The next generation model was a very ambitious project and was sold in a very persuasive way by a very persuasive gentleman.

“It appeared very attractive and promised revenue to the council that we never saw.”

The next generation plan was to move all of NCC’s services out to arms length organisations and reduce staff to 150.

The project failed and two of the organisations created (Olympus Care and First for Wellbeing) have since been re-integrated into NCC.

Cllr Clarke said that the culture has now changed and cabinet members were scrutinising all recommendations by officers.

Conservative county councillor Michael Tye, who represents Rushden Pemberton West, said the authority should now focus on the current financial issues rather than looking back to the cause of the problems.

The council has to find savings of at least £30m this year and another £50m in the following year.

Chairman of the committee labour councillor Mick Scrimshaw said lessons had to be learned from the past.