It was bound to happen sooner or later; a council would run out of money. The reason is rather simple: the removal of the central government grant coupled with increasing costs for social care and children services has, since 2010, caused an ever-widening gap between expenditure and income for all local authorities. This is what has happened to Northamptonshire Council, which according to the BBC:
“A cash-strapped local authority has imposed emergency spending controls as it faces “severe financial challenges”.
The section 114 notice bans all new expenditure at Northamptonshire County Council, with the exception of statutory services for protecting vulnerable people. Last month the government said an inspector would look into allegations of financial failings at the authority.”
But this is also the same ‘cash-strapped’ authority that recently paid its outgoing Chief Executive, Paul Blantern over £100,000 as part of a resignation payment. Let’s just consider that: a CEO of a failing local authority, that has banned all non-essential expenditure, was paid over £100,000 because he chose to resign!
As Alan Wylie highlighted via Twitter both Northamptonshire Council and Paul Blantern had been strong proponents of outsourcing council services. Even proposing reducing its staff force to a core of 150, while transferring out 4000 jobs to different service providers. These would be part owned by the Council but managed like private sector companies.
Paul Blantern was quoted as saying: “we are always having to be at the cutting edge, to be innovative and creative.” He also stated on the BBCs The Bottom Line that there was nothing he wouldn’t consider outsourcing.
No doubt this attitude helped in his selection as Chair of the Libraries Taskforce as it perfectly reflected government policy towards libraries: outsourcing, greater commercialisation, and major staff reductions.
Northamptonshire were also held up as an exemplar of the brave new world of libraries as the service was subsumed into a health dominated social enterprise ‘First for Wellbeing’. No doubt the outcome of one of Paul’s ‘innovative and creative’ solutions. An approach so in favour with government policy that the DCMS described the library service as trailblazing.
Ironic then that Northamptonshire is the first council in twenty years to issue a section 114 notice and warns there is a “significant risk” it will not produce a balanced budget this year, as required by law.
However, irony is quickly replaced by farce as one of the council’s cost saving proposals is selling its brand new headquarters, which cost £53million, and then leasing it back! Then again, perhaps it should come as no surprise that a council willing to aggrandise itself with a new £53m building during austerity and falling income should come so financially unstuck.
Unfortunately, libraries will not escape this act of monumental political and financial incompetence as proposals have been put forward to close up to 28 of the county’s 36 libraries. Despite the CIC route that was meant to provide a long-term sustainable model for Northamptonshire libraries.
Given all the publicity and resources dedicated by the Libraries Taskforce into promoting outsourcing I wonder if we can look forward to a blog on how badly it can also go wrong. Somehow I doubt it.
Sadly, the pressure and ideological imperative for councils to outsource services means that libraries could well be damned if they don’t and then damned if they do!