Finances are still off track at Northamptonshire County Council

Councillors at today's scrutiny meeting did not look happy with the financial news.
Councillors at today's scrutiny meeting did not look happy with the financial news.

Finances at Northamptonshire county council are still off track with latest forecasts predicting that £8m of the £41m savings needed by the end of the financial year will not be made.

Paul Helsby, the man behind the high-profile transformation programme to get the financially fragile council back in shape today (Aug 28) announced that forecasts were predicting that only 80 percent of the planned for savings set out in the February budget would be made.

Paul Helsby is forecasting that 20 percent of planned savings at the struggling council will not be achieved.

Paul Helsby is forecasting that 20 percent of planned savings at the struggling council will not be achieved.

In a robust grilling by the council’s scrutiny committee, Paul Helsby told councillors the high-profile problems in the council’s failing children’s services department had, in part, derailed the transformation programme.

Cllr Michael Clarke, who was himself finance portfolio holder immediately after the collapse of the council in Spring last year, said he was very concerned some savings predicted this financial year are now being moved into the next year.

He said: “This sounds very much to me like kicking the can down the road. Having been a survivor of previous budget scrutinies over the past several years, we were continually presented with huge sums where the can had been kicked down the road, with unachieved savings from past years. This sounds very much like the same language. Can you persuade me that I am wrong in that respect?”

Mr Helsby, who said the 80 percent forecast was a cautious projection and his team would work hard to remedy the slippage in savings.

He said: “A number of things happened post setting the budget. The first Ofsted inspection in October resulted in a commissioner being appointed and then things started to evolve around the changes in relation to the focussed inspection of the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub.

“The commissioner requirement to have an improvement plan changed direction on a number of things that were planned.”

£5.8m of savings planned for in children’s services and voted for by the conservative administration in February now look unachievable.

There were gloomy faces all round the table at the council’s headquarters on One Angel Square as the state of the council’s finances was made clear again.

When questioned whether the original transformation plan was overly optimistic Mr Helsby said they had been based on the information available at the time.

Cllr Richard Auger asked Mr Helsby, who will now also take on the role of leading the two unitary government reorganisation programme, whether he still had fire in his belly to take on the challenge. He has been in post for eleven months since joining the council from Trafford where he had worked with the council’s chief executive Theresa Grant.

He said: “I don’t like programme management. What really excites me is mending things that were broken and this was broken. That is what gets me up in the morning.”

Cllr Jane Birch said she was concerned that all the easier services cuts had been made and now any additional cuts to make the savings would put more services in a risky position.

Cllr Clarke said it was a pity the conservative run council did not embark on the transformation programme years ago.

A very expensive next generation plan led by former chief executive Paul Blantern in which services were moved into stand alone organisations, did not work and had been widely discredited in the wake of the authority’s financial collapse in 2018.

Cllr Jonathan Ekins and Cllr Malcolm Waters said they wanted to thank Paul and his transformation team for the work they had done so far – the savings target to from April to August has largely been met – as “the damage was done before he got there”.

The savings issues comes after a report to the council’s cabinet earlier this month announced that the funding gap for the next financial year (20/21) is now £34.9m – an increase of 23.7m on what was thought earlier this year.

The council will cease to exist in spring 2021 when the new unitary councils come in. The estimated cost of the transition is around £42m.

The reorganisation is still to be approved by parliament.

*This is an amended figure from an earlier version.