Northamptonshire council boss losing sleep about unknown problems lurking round the corner

Theresa Grant says poor decisions led to the downfall of the authority.
Theresa Grant says poor decisions led to the downfall of the authority.

The chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council says she is losing sleep over as yet undiscovered ‘legacy issues’ at the local authority.

In a revealing online interview with Public Sector Executive, the highly paid council boss says ‘what most keeps me awake at night’ is dealing with issues as they emerge.

She says: “Am I certain that we have uncovered everything that needs to be revealed? Absolutely not. But as and when these issues emerge we will make sure they are dealt with properly and appropriately.”

Since the collapse of the council in April 2018 a series of problems have come to light.

The authority mis-spent £8m of funds intended for public health services and was also underpaying early years providers.

Previous finance director Mark McLaughlin said that financial legerdemain – slight of hand – had been used to fill financial gaps within the council and recently auditors KPMG said there had been a lack of expertise and a culture where staff were not held accountable for decisions.

In the interview Theresa Grant gives her view on why the council failed.

She said: “The commissioners and I share the view that the challenges in Northamptonshire did not start as financial issues. Rather over a considerable period of time poor decisions were made, meaning key services suffered and the organisation pursued fanciful and ineffective schemes.”

A warning in 2015 by the council’s then finance officer to leader Jim Harker that the council was headed for a financial crisis and had to take drastic action was ignored.

In 2017/18 the council overspent by £35m – the first council to fail to balance its books in decades. Last year it had a £4.5m underspend, although these accounts are yet to be audited.

In the current 2019/20 financial year the authority is predicting at a £5m overspend by the end of the year with much of the financial pressures stemming from the authorty’s failing children’s services department.

The council boss, who moved to the role from Trafford council in August last year, says in the interview that the council still remains fragile but that for the first time in its recent history the council is getting a grip on its finances.