'Ingrained culture of failure' laid bare in final report over collapse of Northamptonshire's County Council

Commissioners brought in to resolve financial crisis do not hold back in their criticism of previous leadership...while praising those who took their place

Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 2:25 pm
Updated Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 5:16 pm
A final report has laid bare the critical failings of the former Northamptonshire County Council.

"Hubris... An engrained culture of failure... Leadership with no sense of accountability or ownership, looking for others to blame."

This is the damning assessment by the Government-appointed commissioners who were called in after the county council collapsed and was effectively declared bankrupt.

After three years at their posts, the independent 'fixers' have written their final report into the collapse of the council.

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Commissioners Tony McArdle and Brian Roberts say the county council was a "substantially restored organisation" when it ceased to exist.

Among positive statements that the council "ended its existence with its head held high" when the two new unitary authorities took control this year, the report however does not shy away from the state of affairs from when they arrived.

"There had been a complete failure of political and senior managerial leadership at the council in the years preceding the Intervention," the report reads.

"It was an organisation that had been hollowed out, with many of its in-house services and its out-sourced services neither efficient nor effective.

"Instead there was a preoccupation with far-fetched experiments and ill-thought through exotic solutions."

The report, which heralds that the county council was "substantially restored" at the hands of a 'successful Government intervention', was completed by the council's two commissioners.

Tony McArdle and Brian Roberts were appointed in May 2018 by the Secretary of State as following an inspection by Max Caller CBE stating the council's failings.

It came after two successive emergency section 114 notices were brought down on the bankrupt council to stop unnecessary spending.

Further highly-publicised failures included multiple furiously damning reports into its children's services. On its watch, two toddlers in the county were murdered in separate cases by their drug-dealing fathers after social services failed to identify risks. Meanwhile, a case came to light in Northampton in 2016 where a homeschooled child was "systematically removed" from the social care system and kept locked in a dark, filthy room with his own faeces. The council apologised "unreservedly" for its failures following the report.

After three years - on a combined £1,500 a day salary, not including expenses - the two Government fixers declared in its 'lessons learned' report that the intervention was "a success".

The report maintains that the council was kept running by "many good, hard working dedicated staff, who were suffering from "learned helplessness", "deeply ingrained fatigue" and even "widespread anger".

Instead, the strongest criticism was levelled at the council's leadership.

"At the centre of its faults was hubris characterised as dangerous over-confidence," the report reads.

"Rather than face up to its challenges, the leadership failed to tackle emerging issues, looked to lay blame elsewhere and chose instead to pursue fanciful solutions and remedies which were unlikely to succeed."

In the report, the commissioners highlighted their appointment of "an experienced and determined chief executive" to reform leadership in the form of Theresa Grant, who in 2021 was revealed to be on a £195,000 salary.

They further said the council's later leadership "worked relentlessly to restore a demoralised wider team who had come to lack confidence in their own abilities and the freedom to use those abilities".

Following the council's bankruptcy, Councillor Matt Golby took over as leader.

Speaking after his successfully won a seat at the 2021 West Northamptonshire Council elections, Councillor Golby said of the county council's legacy: "I hope that people will recognise that in the last three years we worked really hard to deliver a positive legacy.

“We ended up balancing our budgets and contributed a significant amount of resources to the new unitaries, and that was down to an awful lot of hard work by a lot of people. I do believe we delivered on that commitment.”

Said unitary's cabinet also retains three other of its cabinet members who were appointed after the bankruptcy - Fiona Baker, Elizabeth Bowen and Malcolm Longley.

The summary section of the report states: "The intervention in Northamptonshire has been a success.

"The council is now financially secure, its services are competent and it is in a good place to hand over to the new unitary authorities.

"The claims of Northamptonshire being unfairly treated were fictional. The reality is that it had ceased to manage well the business of being a local authority, had avoided making difficult decisions at every turn and had run out of excuses.

"The very fact that a sound performance has been achieved without the need to cut services but rather by ‘doing the boring well’, reducing inefficiencies and pursuing real transformation speaks volumes."