Commissioners tell government sorting out Northants Children's Services finances will be the 'hardest nut to crack'

Commissioner Brian Roberts who is in charge of turning around the finances at NCC.
Commissioner Brian Roberts who is in charge of turning around the finances at NCC.

Making children’s services financially sustainable will be “the hardest nut to crack”, according to the two commissioners overseeing the improvement of Northamptonshire County Council.

In their third report to the Government since being appointed 18 months ago, Tony McArdle and Brian Roberts have reported that the financial situation still ‘remains stressed‘ at the authority, which is due to be replaced by two new unitary councils in April 2021.

Tony McArdle has said the financial position at the authority remains stressed.

Tony McArdle has said the financial position at the authority remains stressed.

They also say they are disappointed that the Conservative-run council’s financial accounts from 2017/18 have not been given audit sign off and say the prospects for success of the new unitary council’s will be ‘inhibited’ if they have to focus on repairing poor services from the start.

The report was published on October 22, however it dates back to July 12 so the situation has moved on since then.

Children’s services at the council are failing and since the commissioners’ report the first Children’s Commissioner Malcolm Newsam has resigned, along with the highly paid head of children’s services Sally Hodges and her deputy Jean Imray.

The authority is struggling to try to keep reducing the level of spend in the department and is currently predicting it will overspend its £116.6m 12-month budget by more than £7m.

The high levels of children in care, a large spend on agency social worker staff and the high cost of out of county residential places are behind the overspend. The council’s various initiatives have not so far been able to get the finances in line with the budget.

The commissioners say in their report: “A financially sustainable children’s service – this will be the hardest nut to crack. For at least the past six years the council has thrown money that it could not afford, and ultimately did not have, at children’s services. That activity, divorced as it was from any plan to spend that money wisely, has contributed to a large extent to the mess the service is in. It is significantly high cost and significantly low performing.

“The establishment of a Trust will provide a new platform for improvement, but it will take time to deliver the changes in structure, resource, operating practice and performance that are necessary. The resources that the council(s) will have to provide to the Trust to make these changes happen will have to be negotiated for the short and medium term. Achieving a financial plan that works for the trust (and the councils) will be a crucial task to get right.”

They also add: “If, in our first year, the council’s progress was characterised by fast-paced, high-level redirection and change, the second is by contrast likely to be one of incremental improvement brought about through hard graft.”

Government has dictated that an independent children’s trust be established to take over child protection in Northamptonshire, however many councillors have concerns about the proposal.

In response, local government minister Luke Hall MP said the speed with which the commissioners have managed to ‘turn around’ the finances at NCC was impressive but that he did not underestimate the difficulty of the challenges that remain.

Read the report in full here.