Brexit, and the ongoing Conservative leadership contest, dominate. Other stories rarely get a hearing. The fact that despite her imminent resignation as Prime Minister, Theresa May remains ahead of Jeremy Corbyn in the personal approval ratings. The ongoing political crisis in Belgium, one of our closest European neighbours, which now has a minority government after a coalition fell apart due to an immigration row that makes Britain’s Brexit ructions seem like small beer. The long-awaited proposals for expanding Heathrow Airport, with the loss of 750 homes, which would in normal circumstances be headline news.
Compared to these stories, the implosion of local government in a middle England county over the last two years stands little chance of breaking through. Since Northamptonshire’s County Council finally balanced its books and had its emergency spending controls lifted in March, a year after being declared effectively bankrupt, many may assume the crisis is over. But it isn’t, and the story tells us much about the fallout of austerity, the sheer incompetence of many Conservatives in local government, and Labour’s collapse in middle England over the last 15 years. It deserves a lot more attention than it has received.
While the immediate crisis may have been averted, the council’s – and the county’s – underlying problems remain, and may have even been magnified. Many lessons have yet to be learnt to prevent a large county council from ever going bust again.
A Midland county almost at the centre of England, Northamptonshire has long been close to the national average by many measures. Until 2018 it never had a high profile, either for its politics or anything else. Conservative-controlled since 2005, Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) appeared to local residents, and to outsiders, as a competent, if unadventurous, authority. Many councillors – both Conservative and Labour – served for decades. Relations between the parties, and between councillors and officers, were cordial, and bullying was almost unheard of. “Second best is good enough” seemed to be the council’s unofficial motto.
When my partner and I moved to Northamptonshire at the end of 2014 we were pleasantly surprised to find that even the smallest of towns had a well-stocked library, and many had a leisure centre too. The county still has plentiful and well-maintained country parks and playgrounds. The streets of its towns were clean, its council tax was low, and the rubbish was collected like clockwork.
Behind the scenes a revolution was underway. In 2015 Paul Blantern, NCC’s chief executive since 2010, and its septuagenarian Conservative leader, Jim Harker, announced a ‘Next Generation’ structure for the council to help put it on a stable financial footing. Building on an existing joint venture with neighbouring Cambridgeshire, Local Government Shared Services (LGSS), NCC was now to become a “small retained organisation”, called NCC Group, that would “right-source Safeguarding and Wellbeing outcomes through a federation of newly formed bodies, be they Mutuals, Community Interest Companies, Social Enterprises, public-public; public-private or private businesses” which would be “spun out” of direct council control.
Blantern was not the first NCC chief executive to attract headlines: in 2008 his predecessor Katherine Kerswell was widely ridiculed for launching a “Taste the Strawberry” initiative to improve services. But while Kerswell had only created a wacky catchphrase, Blantern sought to completely overhaul everything the council did. NCC was not unique in this: most British councils have been outsourcing services for decades, and many have recently started handing services over to social enterprises, not-for-profits and other arms-length bodies, both to encourage innovation and to benefit from VAT and other financial advantages. Like many others, NCC exploited new financial freedoms granted by central government, allowing it to put capital receipts (mostly from selling off surplus property) towards service “transformation”, rather than have to recycle it into new capital spending or hand it on to the Treasury.
NCC’s first problem was that the “transformation” was delivered so incompetently that the expected income and cost savings never kept pace with rising pressures on its budget. Like all councils, from 2010 onwards NCC faced steep cuts in its government grants, increased pension costs, and rising pressures on its social care and child protection budgets. Rather than confront the problem, NCC’s councillors spent too much time and energy on vanity projects such as the new heritage centre at Chester Farm – a laudable idea in good times, but an odd priority when the council was heading towards bankruptcy (fittingly, the project’s building contractor has itself just gone bust).
A second, related problem was that the council’s definition of “transformation” was so elastic that money from property disposals was used to plug growing holes in the council’s day-to-day running costs. Rather like selling your furniture to buy food, such an approach is unsustainable: once a surplus council building has been sold it cannot be sold again. A third was that, in line with the Conservative administration’s election pledges, council tax was frozen year after year, even after government grants began to decline. Such a council tax freeze would only make sense if Northamptonshire had exceptionally low levels of demand for services, a particularly high tax base, or a unique revenue stream like Westminster’s parking income or Manchester’s airport ownership. None of these apply.
The financial cock-up that lead to the council’s collapse in the spring of 2018 was thus so straightforward that even a child of ten could understand it: put simply, the money ran out. There had been warning signs before – in 2013 Ofsted had judged NCC’s children’s services department as ‘inadequate”, prompting NCC to pour resources into the department at others’ expense – but little outward sign that the council was on the brink of bankruptcy. Despite warnings in 2017 from NCC’s auditors KPMG that the council’s budget was heading towards a precipice, few people, either at County Hall or in Whitehall, seemed to pay much attention.
In October 2017 Paul Blantern suddenly quit, with NCC claiming in a statement that his resignation had been agreed “together” with leader Heather Smith (who had succeeded Harker in 2016), following the opening of One Angel Square, a £53m new headquarters building in the centre of Northampton, and “changes to how the council operated”. Blantern is now plying a trade as a freelance consultant, “Delivering transformation programmes for public and private enterprises”. No mention was made of the financial crisis that was brewing behind the scenes.
Matters came to a head later that month, when the Northamptonshire Telegraph was leaked details of a previously unpublished independent Local Government Association “peer review” of NCC’s management, which highlighted “major shortfalls in achievement”, “a poor record” on budgeting, “unrealistic” savings targets, and an “over-reliance on the government bailing the council out in 2019-20”. The peer team also found “a lack of overall understanding and confidence… at both officer and member level in the ‘Next Generation Council’ model”, and heard comments from several sources that its “time has run out”.
In response to the “blunt” report, interim chief executive Damon Lawrenson – a former NCC finance chief appointed at short notice to succeed Blantern – debunked many of its findings and insisted that the challenges facing NCC were “not insurmountable”. But at the same time, the council ordered staff to take a day’s unpaid leave over Christmas 2017, and stepped up its ‘Mind the Gap’ campaign, begging central government for a financial rescue. But Heather Smith seems to have lobbied for more resources so incompetently that rather than support her, the county’s seven MPs – all of them Conservative, like the council itself – publicly stated that they had no confidence in her leadership.
To be fair to Smith, she had often spoken on both radio or TV about the county’s particular financial challenges from 2016 onwards (and NCC had warned Whitehall as long ago as 2013 that it faced a structural financial problem). But the only examples she could muster – a larger than average number of refugee children because the M1’s Watford Gap services lies in the county, and a funding formula which overstated the county’s leafiness and understated its urban problems – sounded unconvincing. All seven MPs soon rushed out a joint statement claiming that the council’s financial woes were “self-inflicted” and that “we have been concerned with how the cabinet at NCC have conducted its financial management for a number of years”. The council was on its own.
In January 2018 the secretary of state for Communities and Local Government – at the time Sajid Javid – ordered an independent inspection of what had gone wrong at the council, led by Max Caller CBE, a veteran council chief executive well-known for having turned the London Borough of Hackney around in the early 2000s. In February the council’s finance chief Mark McLaughlin took the very unusual step of issuing a ‘Section 114 notice’: a stark warning that the council’s money was running out and it was at risk of not being able to balance its budget.
The council’s auditors, KPMG, had been caught short by the collapse of Carillion in 2017 and were in no mood to be seen to turn a blind eye to the council’s failures: I am told that never before had they seen such weak leadership in a local authority. A couple of weeks later KPMG issued an “advisory notice” stating that that they believed the council was about to set a potentially unlawful budget. Having already imposed strict limits on all new expenditure, the council then rushed through an emergency cuts package.
Things got even worse for the council in March 2018, when Caller’s ‘Best Value’ inspection report was published. Such reports rarely make gripping reading, but Caller’s was a notable exception. He may have been asked by Whitehall to find evidence of incompetence at NCC, and only found what he wanted to find, but find it he did.
“NCC has relied on one-off items, allocation of balances, windfalls and laterally the use of capital receipts to balance the numbers at the year’s end. This is not budget management,” Caller stated bluntly. “It would have been reasonable to expect that the council should have been sufficiently concerned about the adverse audit opinions to call for an analysis and an action plan to rectify the position, but there was no action. The problems faced by NCC are now so deep and ingrained that it is not possible to promote a recovery plan that could bring the council back to stability and safety in a reasonable timescale.”
Caller concluded that the council was beyond redemption and had to be abolished. “To change the culture and organisational ethos and to restore balance, would, in the judgement of the inspection team, take of the order of five years and require a substantial one-off cash injection. Effectively, it would be a reward for failure,” his report said. “It is not considered likely that councillors and officers would have the strength of purpose to carry through such a long running programme of recovery potentially crossing two electoral cycles. In the meantime, it would be the people of the county who would suffer. A way forward with a clean sheet, leaving all the history behind, is required.”
The report found that “NCC works in silos and does not communicate well internally or share common objectives”, and that “this is not a recent phenomenon.” The council “had abandoned its Star Chamber process” for budgeting, only reinstating it in 2017 when it was too late to save it from going effectively bankrupt.
“The council’s approach comes across as sloppy, lacking in rigour and without challenge. It is particularly concerning to see this approach in all subsequent years”, with many of the savings arising from the ‘Next Generation’ model being not “more for less, but routine service reductions”, wrote Caller. There had been a “dramatic reduction” in the council’s reserves from £57.7m in 2013-14 to just £8.8m in April 2017. Caller had – unusually – been contacted by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, who told him that NCC was “one of the most difficult authorities the Ombudsman had engaged with”.
While Caller noted that “NCC employs many good, hardworking, dedicated staff who are trying to deliver essential services to residents”, and that “the problems the council faces are not their fault”, he pointedly noted that chief executive Damon Lawrenson “did not think it important enough to be in the country” during the LGA’s peer review of 2017, and that Lawrenson had gone abroad again just after McLaughlin issued his bombshell ‘Section 114’ report in early February 2018.
Nor did Caller give any praise or comfort to the council’s elected councillors, most of whom came over as bumbling simpletons in his report. Caller had been shocked by “the number of councillors who told us that they had been refused information” about the council’s finances, and that many feared that “if they asked difficult questions… they would be replaced”. His overall impression was “that challenge and criticism was to be discouraged as senior members and officers knew best”, and that the council’s scrutiny and audit committees had been “repeatedly thwarted” when trying to probe its financial problems. As for the leader and her cabinet, “in local government there is no substitute for doing boring really well. Only when you have a solid foundation can you innovate”, he concluded. In other words, NCC’s political leaders weren’t competent enough to run a boring council, let alone an innovative one.
In March 2018 one of NCC’s Community Interest Companies, First for Wellbeing (delivering its public health services), was brought back in-house just two years after its launch, and Caller found that no-one at NCC seemed to know whether the ‘Next Generation’ ship was still sailing. “During our discussions at the council there was a lack of clarity about what has happened to the Next Generation Council approach. It would appear to have been abandoned but that is not clear,” Caller noted caustically. The model had never had a “hard-edged business plan or justification,” with “regular budget overspends which were covered by one off non-recurring funding sources” – in other words, keeping day-to-day services afloat by selling off assets.
Worst of all for the council, its claim that it was uniquely disadvantaged because its population is ageing more rapidly than the national average (as many of the young people who moved to the county’s new housing estates in the 1960s and 70s become old and started requiring long-term care) was ridiculed by Caller. His report concluded “NCC is not in a significantly worse position” than two similar counties, Lincolnshire and Suffolk, which he noted had both seen a much bigger increase in over-85s between 2010 and 2016 than Northamptonshire had. “The ‘Mind the Gap’ analysis does not demonstrate that NCC has been particularly badly treated by the funding formula,” was his damning conclusion. Although NCC did have one of the lowest levels of funding per head of any English authority in 2017/18, it was no lower than two other Midland county councils, Staffordshire and Leicestershire, neither of which have gone into bankruptcy.
Astonishingly, Jim Harker – who led the council for a decade from 2006 to 2016 – has told the media that “I take no responsibility” for the council’s collapse, even though he had pushed for repeated council tax freezes, and the disastrous ‘Next Generation’ model had been announced on his watch. Caller’s report, he added, was “a whitewash designed to get the Government off the hook.”
In the meantime, NCC started making yet more savage cuts in early 2018. The council reduced services to “a bare legal minimum”, and soon had to admit that its adult services “were on the verge of being unsafe”, with 2,000 vulnerable adults unassigned to social workers, even before another £4m of cuts were implemented. Just around the corner from Angel Square, the council’s historic County Hall, part of which dates back to 1675, was largely vacated and put on the market. Some 63% was cut from the children’s centres budget, resulting in many of them closing. Many of the county’s 36 libraries were temporarily closed, and then reopened with much reduced opening hours; the council then announced that 21 of the smaller ones (though oddly not Oundle’s library, in the division that Smith represented) would have their council funding withdrawn and would only stay open if volunteers came forward to run them.
Despite the distraction of Brexit, Northamptonshire briefly found itself in the headlines for once, for all the wrong reasons. Its county council was, predictably, criticised for having opened One Angel Square just months before announcing that it had run out of money, and for spending another £500,000 on furniture for the building since. In fact building One Angel Square may have been one of the few good things the council had done: centralising back office functions, selling off redundant buildings and opening more efficient new ones with greater economies of scale can save a lot of money. But the timing was undeniably terrible.
Labour, predictably, blamed both nationwide austerity and local incompetence, and have sought to portray Northamptonshire as a Tory council where the austerity birds have come home to roost. By contrast it has suited Conservative commentators to assign blame locally, with ConservativeHome columnist Harry Phibbs arguing that the real problem was NCC’s inept leadership and too many overpaid officers.
With Brexit dominating the political agenda, the story soon fell off the front pages. If Northamptonshire was run by Corbynites, no doubt it would have been condemned by the tabloids for its ‘loony left’ profligacy. But because the crisis hit a humdrum Tory-run county council it has received little media attention since the spring and summer of 2018.
Jeremy Corbyn raised the crisis in Northamptonshire at PMQs once in March 2018, but Labour has been oddly silent since. One reason may be that the council’s leadership quickly changed. Heather Smith resigned as leader in March 2018, as soon as Caller’s damning report came out, to be replaced by another Conservative, Matthew Golby. Having accepted all of Caller’s recommendations – including his call for NCC and the county’s seven district councils to be abolished, and for the county to be split into two new unitary councils – Sajid Javid installed two level-headed commissioners (Tony McArdle, a former chief executive of Wellingborough Borough and Lincolnshire County Councils, and Brian Roberts, Leicestershire’s former director of finance) to oversee NCC in the meantime. Following the departure of Lawrenson (who it later turned out had been paid £1,150 a day between October 2017 and March 2018), and yet another interim chief executive, the council’s chief civil servant is now the sensible Theresa Grant (no relation), a former chief exec of Trafford Council in Greater Manchester, a welcome injection of new blood from outside the East Midlands.
But another reason may be that despite having a population of 750,000, Northamptonshire has always had too low a profile. Although it is fast-growing (several of its districts have the highest rate of population growth anywhere in England outside the southeast), and far from poor, Northamptonshire has few outspoken advocates and is not well-known. Few tourists ever visit it, and few wealthy Londoners have second homes here. The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, who has clearly not explored Northamptonshire much beyond its main roads, has written that “This once lovely county, much of it now a waste of wind turbines and warehouses” is now ‘Britain’s first banana republic”. Unlike other counties, few people leap to Northamptonshire’s defence when it is so unfairly maligned.
The county has good local media: the BBC has excellent local political reporters, its weekly papers the Northamptonshire Telegraph and the Northampton Chronicle & Echo have somehow survived the challenges facing local print media, and all have covered NCC’s crisis well. But it does not contain a big, affluent university city like Oxford or Cambridge, with a populace that could have articulated the effects of public service cuts more effectively.
The cuts have thus often been portrayed as some kind of victimless crime, as if the only consequences are a few more potholes here, a few shortened library opening hours there, and everywhere red-faced politicians. NCC’s crisis is often reported as a hypothetical case study, not a real-life headache for the 750,000 people who live here.
The reality on the ground is very different. While some of the council’s cuts – such as no colour photocopying – seem like common sense belt-tightening, many others have had devastating effects, particularly on the most vulnerable. A neighbour of ours – a single parent with four school-age children, one of them with severe learning difficulties – has lost much of her respite care, and there is no certainty there will be any respite care at all next year. Many nurseries and childminders have complained that NCC has been paying them late, or not at all, for the childcare they provide.
The council’s crisis has inevitably led to many staff redundancies, a brain drain, and difficulties in recruiting to the jobs that remain: in 2017-18 NCC spent £12m, more than any other English local authority, on agency social workers. Staff overtime was frozen, only to be reinstated when it was realised that many services rely on overtime because of staff shortages.
The council is now threatening to charge scout and guide groups market rates for hiring its premises, threatening to send such groups to the wall. Despite the council’s pledge to work with community groups to keep the county’s 21 smallest libraries open, these groups have found they are expected to pay rent to the council for the privilege of running them, and several have understandably got cold feet. In the village of Irchester, a library building that was built by Andrew Carnegie in 1909 and given by the parish to the county council for free in 1964 is now being offered for sale back to the parish for £195,000. As only five of these 21 libraries have been given statutory protection, it’s an open question how many will survive long-term.
When the bridge connecting our local market town, Oundle, to its bypass was found to be structurally unsafe in 2018, a temporary weight limit was imposed, sending lorries and buses on a five-mile diversion over an even older and more vulnerable bridge to reach the centre of town, as there was simply no money for the necessary repairs. Serious potholes on the county’s roads are now only repaired within seven days of being reported (many other councils fix them in hours).
Despite Caller’s dislike of “rewards for failure”, a rescue package of sorts has been cobbled together. NCC’s Commissioners have asked for, and obtained, a “capitalisation dispensation” allowing One Angel Square to be sold off and leased back, and for the capital receipt to be used to plug the council’s unfunded deficit of £35m for 2018-19. Money has somehow been found to repair Oundle’s North Bridge, which will finally be made safe for lorries and buses by the end of 2019. After an outcry, NCC has reversed cuts to road gritting that left many villages completely ungritted last winter. Fears that the two successor unitary councils will simply inherit the debts of the failed county council have subsided.
But will the two new councils fare any better than NCC in the long-term? Many have complained that despite all its motherhood and apple pie ‘principles’ – ‘accountability’ and ‘local identity’ among them – the ‘Future Northants’ consultation on the county’s new structures was merely cosmetic. Even Opinion Research Services, the agency that conducted it, admitted in its final report that “the five-week period for responses was significantly shorter than the normal eight or even 12 weeks” for such an important local government reorganisation, and that “there were severe limitations on the preparation time, the financial information that could be provided, and the possible range of cross-border options because of the urgency of the timetable required by the government.” It is clear that the Secretary of State (Sajid Javid until April 2018, and James Brokenshire since) has always wanted to split Northamptonshire into two unitary councils, as Caller had recommended, regardless of what local people wanted. The announcement on May 14 that the county will indeed be split that way surprised nobody.
Like most English shires, Northamptonshire is very ancient indeed: it was first recorded (as Hamtunscire) more than a thousand years ago, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1011. But the decision to split this county in two has been taken a lot more lightly than usual. Firstly, the reorganisation has, unusually, been overseen not by an independent boundary commission but by the Secretary of State himself. Secondly, the consultation document stated that new councils in Northamptonshire should each have “a credible geography consisting of one or more existing local government areas and… a population that at a minimum is substantially in excess of 300,000”, making two unitary councils a foregone conclusion.
But there is no reason why unitary councils have to be that big (neighbouring Rutland, with a population of just 40,000, has a unitary council). Nor is it clear why new councils can’t cut across existing boundaries: one of the county’s problems is that Northampton Borough Council’s area does not cover several of the fast-growing town’s outer suburbs. Rather than dividing Northamptonshire on urban/rural lines, with an expanded Northampton surrounded by a horseshoe or doughnut-shaped rural council covering the rest of the county, Northamptonshire is now to be split arbitrarily into two new unitaries: a West Northamptonshire council covering Northampton and two adjacent rural districts, Daventry and South Northants, and a cumbersomely-named North Northamptonshire council, covering the current districts of Corby, East Northants, Kettering and Wellingborough (Corby – the only council in Northants that Labour still controls – went through the motions of opposing its abolition, but was outvoted by its Tory neighbours). Calling the two councils North and West Northamptonshire, rather than North and South or East and West, will only cause more confusion.
Northamptonshire is more of a contrast than most English counties: its larger towns have ailing high streets and pockets of severe deprivation, but are surrounded by very prosperous rural villages. As a grandly- titled “state of the nation” report of 2016 explained, Northamptonshire has less deprivation and higher employment levels than the British average, but much lower educational standards, and the gap between Northants and the national average seems to be widening. With most secondary schools in the county now academies, it is difficult to discern a clear strategy to address their under-performance. Corby has the dubious privilege of being the ‘personal loans capital of Britain’, with a higher proportion of its residents making enquiries about borrowing than anywhere else. Obesity levels in the county are the highest in southern England, after Cornwall.
Although the reorganisation will see Northampton reunited with most of its outer suburbs (currently in the Daventry and South Northants districts), it’s arguable that the county’s two most deprived towns – Northampton itself, and the steel town of Corby – will be marginalised as the new councils that serve them will both have large rural hinterlands.
Northamptonshire is far from being the only English shire to have its district councils abolished and to be split into unitaries. The creation of a number of new regional bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, with overlapping boundaries and blurred lines of accountability, means that many parts of England now have four tiers of local government, and there is a keenness to reduce this to three or even two. Wiltshire and Shropshire have already been split in two, with a single urban unitary (Swindon and Telford respectively) alongside a rural one covering the rest of the county. Dorset has just followed suit. Several other counties – Herefordshire, Cornwall and Northumberland – already have county-wide unitaries, and Buckinghamshire is about to follow.
Heavyweight columnists like Simon Heffer and Simon Jenkins have long argued for the abolition of district councils, whose boundaries are often arbitrary, and whose duties are obscure (“Could your performing animal be affected by changes to animal licensing laws?” was one headline in a recent edition of ENCircle, East Northants District Council’s quarterly bulletin). Without any real social care responsibilities, England’s district councils have escaped austerity relatively lightly, creating an imbalance between asset-rich districts and cash-strapped county councils. In Northamptonshire this disparity was only heightened with the abolition of the Commission for New Towns in the 1990s, when most of the commission’s landholdings and industrial estates in Daventry, Northampton and Corby were passed on to their district councils, not to NCC.
Splitting responsibilities between unitary councils, and beefed up parish and town councils on the ground – in other words, two tiers of local government, not three or four – makes much sense. But the process of reorganisation in Northants is very rushed. Most unitary reorganisations take several years: the recent division of Dorset was the end of a five-year process, instigated in Dorset rather than imposed from above, and punctuated by several rounds of public consultation. In Northamptonshire, a similar process is taking less than three years, from conception in 2018 to final delivery in 2021, and the public has only been consulted once.
While elections to the two new councils will go ahead as planned in May 2020, they will exist in shadow form only for the first year, as their “vesting day” has recently been postponed from 2020 to 1 April 2021. The county’s current district and borough councillors, last elected in 2015, will effectively have a final term of six years. not the usual four (local elections due to be held in May 2019 were cancelled), with their final year in parallel with the new councils. In the meantime, the two new council areas already have “shadow” executives, self-appointed from the current councils and accountable to no-one. It is a recipe for waste, duplication and further confusion: one Lib Dem county councillor has even likened the complex process to the London tube map.
And there still won’t be time for a proper boundary review: the two new councils will adopt the current NCC division boundaries, but with three councillors per division instead of the current one. This matters to everyone, not just boundary nerds: by adopting the same divisional boundaries as the discredited NCC, it gives the NCC’s discredited councillors a head start in candidate selections, and at the elections that will follow. More importantly, the lack of changes to divisional boundaries (which were last reviewed back in 2012) means they will become increasingly outdated, and disparities between their populations will only increase. There has been much new development in Northants since 2012, and the residents of new developments will be increasingly under-represented.
The new North Northamptonshire council will have 78 councillors – far more than many London boroughs with the same population – giving plenty of berths for current county and district councillors (plans for the new West Northamptonshire council are less advanced, as a partnership between South Northants district council and its Oxfordshire neighbour Cherwell has to be unpicked first). The political tail is wagging the institutional dog.
I’ve been through enough candidate selection processes to know that the outcome of this game of musical chairs won’t be determined by talent or original thinking. A reduction of the number of seats should logically prompt a Darwinian weeding-out of second and third-raters, but politics often doesn’t work that way: the safest seats will be allocated by back-stabbing and deal-making in smoke-filled rooms. None of this bodes well for the injection of fresh blood, and new thinking, that the county so badly needs.
The county’s political parties – and particularly the Conservatives – badly need to reach out and recruit a new generation of civic leaders, not just recycle the dead wood. But it’s naïve to assume that abolition of the county council will automatically mean a new generation of dynamic political leaders coming forward out of nowhere. Max Caller – once dubbed ‘Mad Max’ for his robust attitude in Hackney – should realise that this will only happen with the commitment of the county’s two main political parties, neither of which show any sign of trying to recruit new talent.
Snapshots of Northamptonshire’s council leaders, trying to thrash out a solution to the county’s problems, do not inspire much confidence that they have the dynamism and diversity the county deserves
Many of the county’s councillors are double-hatted – both county and district councillors – anyway, and most are older white men. Of its district council leaders only Tom Beattie, Corby’s extrovert Labour leader, seems to have any sense of vision (although he is Irish-born, Beattie has forthright views on the importance of Labour embracing English identity to do well in the Midlands). Northamptonshire, like so many other places, has a limited pool of political talent, and don’t be surprised if many of the county councillors who presided over the implosion of NCC re-emerge as councillors in the new unitaries. Unless they act unlawfully councillors can’t be barred from running again for office, but maybe some should be.
Nor are the county’s district councils an overlooked pool of talent. Few of their councillors seem to have any vision for the towns they represent. Kettering Borough Council’s portfolio holder for regeneration, Cllr Mark Dearing, recently said “there is little the authority can do” to stop retailers fleeing Kettering’s ailing town centre, begging questions about why such a pessimistic Eeyore was ever appointed to lead the town’s revival.
And rather than save money, the county’s reorganisation is forecast to cost a lot of money, at least in the medium term. There’s already a lot of joint working between NCC and the districts, so there aren’t many new savings to be made. Although one of the principles of the reorganisation was “Value for money: reducing duplication, increasing economies of scale and improving efficiencies”, a leaked report recently revealed that the costs of the transition have risen from an estimated £30m to £44m.
Bearing in mind that NCC is responsible for 90% of local authority expenditure in the county and the districts only 10%, splitting the county council in two will result in more duplication, not less:. Although there are plans for a single Children’s Services Trust covering the whole county, otherwise there will be two social care departments, two highways departments and two leisure departments in place of one.
Another problem is that for the next two years the county’s councils, and their councillors, will be more concerned about internal politics than about looking outwards and thinking about the county’s long-term challenges. I’ve written before about what a great place the county is to live in. But despite its rich history, and much scenic beauty, it’s mostly ignored by tourists and hides its light under a bushel. Although the county has a superlative location – on the northern edge of the ‘golden triangle’ of Cambridge, Oxford, and London, all of which are about an hour away – it feels largely bypassed by the talk of a new economic heartland between Oxford and Cambridge.
Despite a lot of rhetoric about how the county’s new councils will “be major players in delivering the housing and jobs growth that Northamptonshire and the Cambridge to Oxford arc so badly need”, and plans for 35,000 new homes in the north of the county between now and 2031, there is a shortfall of £307m in infrastructure spending – new schools and so on – that these new residents will depend on.
Although jobs are plentiful, too many are in low-wage, low-skill sectors, and there seems to be little strategic thinking about what the county’s new jobs should be. Rather than science parks and workspaces for tech start-ups, which are increasingly priced out of the overheated property markets around Oxford and Cambridge, most new commercial development in the county is warehousing, on account of the county’s central location and excellent road network. Since the collapse of the once-dominant boot and shoemaking industry in the 1960s, the county has increasingly sought to be a low-wage, low-skill logistics centre, and has done too little to attract new forms of manufacturing such as green energy: the wind turbines that have cropped up across the county in the last 20 years were not made here.
Encouraging yet more warehouses and out-of-town retail sheds is not in any sense sustainable, as bricks-and-mortar retail continues to decline and warehouses become less labour-intensive and more automated (I should know: I’ve worked in some of them). A recent story on Sky News reported that Northamptonshire’s workforce is at more risk of being made obsolete by robots than any other British county’s, and Corby’s is at greatest risk of all.
Propaganda from my local MP Tom Pursglove makes hardly any mention of the implosion of the Tory-run county council that his constituency lies in. But there’s plenty of room for Brexit, and boasts about how many questions he has asked Theresa May at PMQs
The current turmoil should be a catalyst for creative thinking about how to put the county on the map. But for all the talk of how the new councils will make the county ‘a showpiece for modern green living and well managed sustainable development’, its political thinking seems stuck in a 1980s timewarp. Public transport is poor (the county will be bypassed by the new Oxford-Cambridge rail link, and HS2 will pass through the south-western corner of Northants without any station between London and Birmingham), and unlike other counties there are no campaigns to reopen any of the many lines that Dr Beeching closed in the 1960s.
Too many of the county’s politicians have fallen over themselves to praise – and even take credit for – the recent opening of Rushden Lakes, a huge out-of-town shopping centre that is already doing serious damage to nearby town centres (both House of Fraser and Marks and Spencer have closed their stores in Northampton town centre, to be replaced by big new ones at Rushden Lakes, and Marks has closed its Kettering and Bedford stores as well). Northampton’s recent bid for £25m from the Future High Street Fund seems like closing the door after the retailers have bolted, and a bid to become UK City of Culture in 2025 has just been abandoned.
Northampton isn’t even a city anyway: although it has a population of 250,000 and rising, it is today one of the largest places in England not to have city status, and the largest not to have its own unitary council. It was not always thus: Northampton was a free-standing county borough until 1974, with its own police force, and it is a crying shame that the current reorganisation has failed to seize the chance to give it city status, raise its profile nationally, and encourage inward investment and tourism. Incredibly, despite its size Northampton is not part of either the ‘Key Cities’ or the smaller ‘Core Cities’ groups which fight Whitehall for resources. Northamptonshire needs all the friends it can get, and its county town needs to join such groupings. It’s been far too insular for far too long.
As the public services consultant Ben Proctor has rightly argued, tackling any organisation’s deep-seated cultural problems isn’t done by merely changing structure or shifting municipal boundaries, and certainly not by arbitrarily splitting a county in two. Torn between the Midlands, East Anglia and the south-east, the county has an identity crisis: even its local BBC news segment is awkwardly entitled ‘BBC Look East (West)’. A Cinderella county in a Cinderella region – the East Midlands – Northamptonshire is still awaiting its invitation to the ball.
A deeper problem is the dysfunctional politics of the county, which in the last decade has gone from being a competitive Conservative-Labour marginal to a Tory stronghold. Northamptonshire is far from being a uniformly Tory shire: it has a long radical tradition, from seventeenth-century Levellers and Diggers to the eighteenth-century dissenting preacher Philip Doddridge, and the rapid growth of unions in the boot and shoe industry, and the co-operative movement, in the nineteenth. It’s often forgotten that far from being always Tory-controlled, NCC was under ‘no overall control’ throughout the 1980s and early 1990s and was then Labour-controlled for 12 years from 1993 to 2005. In its modern incarnation the county council has only been Conservative controlled for 17 of the last 45 years.
But Labour suffered a catastrophic collapse in 2005 in Northants, losing three of its five parliamentary seats and almost half of its council seats, and has never really recovered since. In 2010 Labour lost its last two parliamentary seats in the county (Corby & East Northants and Northampton North), and although it regained Corby in a by-election in 2012 it promptly lost it again in 2015. Labour now only have 12 county council seats out of a total of 57, and 42 of the other 45 seats are Conservative-held. Between 1997 and 2005 five out of the county’s six MPs were Labour, but now all seven of the county’s MPs (boundary changes in 2010 added a seventh seat) are Conservatives, most with very big majorities.
In no other county in England has there been such a wholesale collapse in Labour support post-Blair, and nowhere else is there so little evidence of a Corbyn bounce. Although there is no reason in principle why both the county’s two new councils can’t be Labour-controlled, there is no sign yet of Labour reaping any electoral dividend from NCC’s collapse. At a by-election on February 21 for the Oundle division – prompted by Heather Smith’s belated resignation as a councillor – Labour’s vote share fell to just 11%, in third place behind the Lib Dems and less than half the 24% it achieved in Oundle at the last all-out election in 2017.
Although Labour has predictably opposed NCC’s decision to finally raise council tax by 4.99% this year, it is in fact one of the few good decisions NCC has made: decades of low or frozen council tax levels were one of the main reasons why the council went bust in the first place. It will be difficult for Labour to stand on an anti-austerity, pro-public services platform in Northamptonshire in 2020 if it opposes necessary council tax rises. But if Labour doesn’t start making big gains in Northamptonshire, both in terms of MPs and council seats, Labour won’t win the next general election, and maybe doesn’t deserve to.
If Labour had not collapsed so totally in Northants over the last 15 years it’s doubtful that the county’s Conservative masters could have become so complacent, lazy and financially inept. As in so many political strongholds, the ruling party soon descended into infighting, and some of the blue-on-blue attacks in Northamptonshire are like a plotline from The Thick of It. In 2012 Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris was put in charge of the Conservatives’ campaign in the parliamentary by-election in Corby & East Northants (prompted by the resignation of its MP, the chick-lit novelist Louise Mensch, who was moving to New York). But rather than promote the Conservative candidate Christine Emmett, Heaton-Harris – a determined anti wind farm campaigner – was secretly recorded by Greenpeace promoting the independent candidacy of James Delingpole, a climate change-denying Spectator columnist and a constituent of Heaton-Harris’s, to help push government ministers towards a more hostile approach to onshore wind. Although Delingpole ultimately decided not to stand, the damage was done: Labour’s Andy Sawford easily won the by-election with 48% of the vote.
In 2015, Northampton South MP David Mackintosh was obliged to stand down amidst questions over a £13.5m loan to Northampton Town Football Club that he’d signed off in his previous role as leader of Northampton Borough Council (most of the loan was never repaid, and a police investigation is ongoing). A couple of years later, the county’s former Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), Adam Simmonds, was put on trial, accused of passing on confidential information about a fraud investigation into Wellingborough MP Peter Bone and his wife Jeanette onto other prominent Conservatives in 2013 and 2014. Although Bone has denied all wrongdoing, the jury at Simmonds’ trial was unable to reach a verdict and the case collapsed, the incident hardly enhanced anyone’s reputation.
Nor is Labour entirely clean: shortly before the 2015 election the party’s parliamentary candidate for Wellingborough, Richard Garvie, was convicted of fraud, accused of sending a 16-year-old girl “inappropriate” Sanpchat messages and suspended by Labour, even though it was too late to remove his name from ballot papers.
All but one of the county’s seven Tory MPs are determined Brexiteers, and the only one to have voted remain in 2016, Northampton North MP Michael Ellis (then PPS to Theresa May at the Home Office and now a culture minister), is backing Boris Johnson in the Tory leadership contest. All of the other six – including Heaton-Harris, Bone, and Andrea Leadsom – are among the most Eurosceptic MPs imaginable: like eastern European states at Eurovision, they often form a regional voting bloc on Brexit matters. Amazingly, campaign materials over the last two years from local Conservatives have barely mentioned the collapse of the supposedly flagship county council that their party controls: my local MP, Tom Pursglove, seems much more excited about the opening of Rushden Lakes – which isn’t even inside his constituency – and about how many times he has asked questions at PMQs. Maybe if these MPs had spent more time scrutinising their local county council, and less time obsessing about Brexit and windfarms, NCC’s crisis may have been alleviated or averted. All seven of them refuse to take any blame for the council’s failure, forgetting that an important part of any good MP’s job is to hold local councils to account.
For all her faults, it is impossible not to have some sympathy for the hapless Heather Smith, whose New Year’s Eve resignation statement claimed that she had suffered “shameful bullying” by Northamptonshire’s MPs. “I do not believe my presence will serve any useful purpose anymore to the council,” she added. Although she’s clearly partly to blame for NCC’s collapse, she’s also been made a scapegoat for the failure of the Tories’ austerity policy, and the failure of the county’s MPs to keep an eye on what the council was up to. Their sniping continues: only last month Kettering MP Philp Hollobone called for NCC’s current leader Matt Golby to resign, after Serious Case Reviews found that the council’s failings had contributed towards the violent deaths of two toddlers while Golby was in charge of its children’s services department (whose director has admitted that the deaths were not directly linked to the NCC’s financial problems). But it’s not clear why yet another resignation at NCC, rather than ensuring the two new councils are better run, is the answer.
The crisis at NCC obscures a bigger, nationwide crisis in local government finance. Northamptonshire is far from being the only county in England to teeter on the brink. Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire’s county councils have already warned that they face serious financial challenges, and could soon go the same way. As the Guardian’s John Harris has argued, the financial crisis facing local government is “a national calamity” that has received too little scrutiny while everyone’s attention has been focussed on Brexit. While Scotland bravely considers alternatives to council tax, in England difficult decisions about council tax banding are repeatedly ducked: ridiculously, homes in England are still banded according to what they were worth in 1991, not their value now.
A large part of the blame for NCC’s collapse must also be pinned on another Tory policy – the abolition of the Audit Commission, the statutory watchdog that kept tabs on councils – in 2015. Since then councils have been audited by private accountancy, and inevitably the Big Four (KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers) have dominated the market, leading to concerns about conflicts of interests between their audit and consultancy arms. Although KPMG did raise the alarm about NCC’s books early on, it seems that few in Whitehall took heed until it was too late.
On paper, NCC’s ‘Next Generation’ goals – to set up social enterprises, trading companies and become more financially self-sufficient – chimed with a lot of New Labour, Conservative and even Corbynista thinking. Maybe the ‘Next Generation’ model was just a smokescreen to conceal the council’s financial and cultural problems. But perhaps the most serious consequence of NCC’s demise is that local government will from now on be less likely to innovate, at a time when innovation and original thinking is needed more than ever. Northamptonshire’s impending reorganisation won’t really tackle any of the county’s problems. It may only entrench them.