Northamptonshire finance chief says £7.5m government cut is ‘biggest battle’ county council has ever faced

Budget press conference at The County Hall.'Names l-r:  Bill Parker ENGNNL00120131012160814
Budget press conference at The County Hall.'Names l-r: Bill Parker ENGNNL00120131012160814

The finance chief at Northamptponshire County Council says a £7.5 million cut in its government funding shows Westminster “just doesn’t understand the pressures” the authority is under.

Cabinet member for finance on Councillor Bill Parker (Con, Clover Hill) will now have to oversee £84.5 million worth of cutbacks to the council in 2016/17 after it was revealed the figure it is set to receive from the government will be £7.5 million less than anticipated.

A Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokesman claimed Northamptonshire’s “spending power” will actually increase by 4.4 per cent between now and 2020.

But Councillor Parker believes this will barely cover the huge extra demand being placed on services as the population ages and around 900 school children move to the county every three months.

He said: “We can safely say this is the biggest battle the county council has faced in 125 years and we need all the help we can to fight it.”

He added: “We are still talking to the government obviously and we are hoping we can do something over the next few weeks to bring in some funding.

“But I’m not overly confident that will happen.”

Councillor Parker said that leader of the council, Councillor Jim Harker (Con, ISE) had actually met with the communities secretary Greg Clarke in the run up to the announcement over council settlements, to express how cash-strapped Northamptonshire finds itself.

It is currently predicted to fall £8.7 million short of its plan to make £66 million worth of cuts in this financial year and will need to raid reserves to balance its budget.

But the leader’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears as the county finds itself now with a drop in its finance settlement around four per cent harsher than the average cuts faced by councils across the UK.

Councillor Parker, said: “I am disappointed.

We spoke to the DCLG, we spoke to government ministers and they all seemed to understand the position, not just Northamptonshire was in, but a lot of shire counties across the UK.

“But when the settlement came out there was a significant loss to us.

“The government just doesn’t seem to understand the pressures that county councils are under.”

The shadow cabinet member for finance on the county council, Councillor Mick Scrimshaw (Lab, Northall) has condemned the Conservative group’s policy not to raise council tax over the past decade, though Councillor Parker has maintained that was the “right thing to do.”

But the finance chief says the £7.5 million cut means the council will have to strip back virtually all its non-essential services over the coming years.

“Even things which we are required to do as a statutory duty we are going to have to look at them and say, ‘do we need a gold standard service? Or will a silver or bronze standard do’?” He said.

The council is required by law to balance its budget year-in-year and Councillor Parker says crisis talks are now taking place between the heads of each department to ascertain how it finds the savings.

Over the next four years the authority will begin outsourcing services to mutual companies and stripping its core workforce to just under 200. The move is being labelled as a shift to a “Next Generation Model.”

As for the 2016/17 year, the council has already announced it will be axing the Nourish school meals services, cutting funding to adult social care and taking a huge chunk from the fire and rescue budget.

It will now have to find a further 10 per cent on top of the £77 million worth of savings already announced to balance the books by April 2017.

Meanwhile Leader of the council, Councillor Jim Harker has written to Northamptonshire’s MPs calling on them to pressure government ministers for extra funds.

“They are a lot closer to these ministers than we are,” said Councillo Parker. “We hope they can put some pressure on them to make them understand.”