SPECIAL REPORT: Did Northamptonshire County Council miss chance to avert disaster three years ago?

Former council leader Jim Harker delivers the budget in 2015, months after a chance to impose emergency spending controls were missed.
Former council leader Jim Harker delivers the budget in 2015, months after a chance to impose emergency spending controls were missed.

Embattled county council chiefs could well have pulled the authority out of trouble if they had admitted its financial failings three years ago.

Such was the scale of Max Caller's 50-page Best Value inspection into the county council, details of its contents are still being picked over a week after it's publication.

Councillor Heather Smith resigned as leader last week.

Councillor Heather Smith resigned as leader last week.

A deeper analysis of the document has shown how Mr Caller felt Northamptonshire could well have been out of trouble by now if officers had taken the chance in 2015.

The chief financial officer had written to a Section 151 Officer’s letter dated 29th October 2015 to Paul Blantern, then Chief Executive, signalling the intention to issue a Section 114 report (the action that led to all spending being stopped last month).

He wrote: ‘We are experiencing a significant financial crisis but there is avoidance of the term and a lack of action appropriate for the situation we find ourselves in.

“At the heart of this is the corrosion of our financial management arrangements over the past eighteen months - there has been a change of culture and behaviour where overspending is acceptable and there are no sanctions for failure.”

More than 50 people turned out to protest against council cutbacks in December.

More than 50 people turned out to protest against council cutbacks in December.

Strong words indeed, but the Section 114 report was not subsequently issued and there was no change to the approach; overspending without compensating action to recover the position continued.

Mr Caller said: “His warning was not taken seriously”.

Among the more sinister revelations of the report were that councillors not in the Tory inner circle who tried to carry out their basic democratic duties were denied basic information they needed to hold leaders to account.

The inspection team was surprised by the number of councillors who told them they had been flatly refused answers on matters of crucial importance.

Members were told, “You can only ask that at scrutiny meetings” and “I need to get permission from the cabinet member to discuss this with you” - or just did not get a response at all.

Challenge and criticism was to be discouraged as senior members and officers knew best.

And it was clear to inspectors that the chair and other members of the committee “have been repeatedly thwarted”.

Matters that the committee have wanted reports on have taken many months and much persistence for the reports to be prepared and brought to the committee, for example the Highways Service Contract Review.

“This highlighted significant weaknesses,” Mr Caller says, “including deliberately holding and concealing balances which should have been properly returned to the centre, as a way of trying to bypass budgetary constraints.”

Shockingly, councillors told inspectors they felt, if they asked difficult questions at Audit Committee or scrutiny meetings, they would be replaced which Mr Caller found was likely to be true.

Mr Caller said: “Individual councillors appear to have been denied answers to questions that were entirely legitimate to ask and scrutiny arrangements were constrained by what was felt the executive would allow.

“Even if there was a concern about the publishing of confidential information, most authorities have protocols and practices which make it possible for key information to be shared and protect the authority.”

To refuse it outright, Mr Caller said, “is just wrong.”