The fifth meeting of the Northamptonshire Improvement Board was held at One, Angel Square, Northampton on 9 May, 2019.
The meeting discussed the County Council’s financial position, the progress of its transformation programme and preparations for the expected local government reorganisation in Northamptonshire. The Board also progressed a review of its own terms of reference.
Ian Duncan, the Council’s Executive Director for Finance, updated the Board concerning the audit of the 2017/18 accounts and the emerging outturn position in relation to 2018/19.
The 2017/18 audit is progressing but is still not fully concluded. The auditors, KPMG, have made 20 separate recommendations to the Council arising from their work to date. Officers have prepared management responses to each recommendation which are currently being discussed with the auditors. KPMG have also drafted their proposed opinion on the accounts. However, the Commissioners have raised a number of points in relation to the wording. All parties are keen to conclude the audit as soon as possible but at this stage it is difficult to be confident about the timetable for completion.
In the meantime, officers are progressing the closure of the 2018/19 accounts. Provisional figures suggest that actual expenditure will reflect an underspending of approximately £1 million compared to budget including known funding adjustments. However, there are a number of legacy issues which also need to be reflected in the final accounts. The largest of these is a potential provision for the write-off of bad debts of the order of £3 million. The Council is planning to use a proportion of the capitalisation dispensation agreed by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to fund the unbudgeted costs associated with legacy issues.
The Board noted that in overall terms the emerging outturn represents a significantly more positive position than had seemed possible in the first half of the year. The Executive Director explained that although the formal Section 114 notice had been lifted in recognition of the improved and more stable position achieved, many of the controls put in place during the period of that notice would remain in operation to ensure continued improvement.
Paul Helsby, Director of Transformation, made a presentation to the Board explaining the Council’s strategy and detailed methodology in relation to its transformation programme including arrangements for governance, management and resourcing of the programme as a whole and projects within it. The Board noted that the programme was aiming to deliver savings of £45m in return for an investment of £6.5m.
The approach places significant emphasis on detailed scrutiny of business cases to agree realistic target outcomes, and rigorous monitoring to ensure that planned outcomes are actually delivered. Significant recruitment and training programmes have been undertaken to staff the transformation programme and ensure that its implementation is rolled out in a consistent way across a range of different projects and parts of the organisation. A communications plan is also in place to keep wider staff and stakeholders informed about the approach and, in due course, the results achieved.
Like many other aspects of the County Council’s work, the programme is subject to a level of uncertainty because of the expected reorganisation of local government in Northamptonshire. The intention is to try to progress the programme with pace and urgency, and to complete as many transformation projects as possible ahead of any reorganisation in the interests of successor councils.
The Board welcomed a number of the features of the programme including attention to both governance and management arrangements; clear lines of accountability; robust, independent scrutiny of business cases; clarity of reporting against planned outcomes; reconciliation of savings to budget; and regular and effective communications to the wider organisation and its stakeholders. In overall terms it was impressed by the approach and methodology outlined which has clearly been developed with considerable care. The Board looks forward to reviewing the results which are delivered as the programme and projects within it progress to full implementation over the coming months.
Local Government Reorganisation
A Government announcement about the possible reorganisation of local government in Northamptonshire is still awaited. It is expected imminently. Given the passage of time it is increasingly likely that the timetable for any agreed changes would involve new unitary authorities coming into existence in April 2021 rather than 2020 as previously anticipated.
In the meantime the affected authorities are continuing to develop plans for the transition to a possible new structure based on two unitary councils. In particular the stakeholders of the prospective unitary covering West Northamptonshire have now established a formal Joint Committee with three sub-groups to drive preparations.
Increasingly, there is recognition that a longer lead time ahead of any reorganisation will enable a more ambitious approach to transition. Whereas early discussions, based on a possible implementation date of 2020, had focused on an objective of delivering “safe and legal” services on day one, there was now, based on a possible 2021 timetable, an opportunity to aim to deliver services which were safe, legal, integrated and sustainable. Discussions were taking place to formulate a joined-up plan and structure to support a more ambitious agenda of this sort in the event that a 2021 timetable is announced.
Children’s services remains a key area of interest. Again, a Government announcement is awaited concerning the structure of the service following any reorganisation. The most likely option is thought to be the establishment of a Children’s Trust. Planning and preparation for the transition of Children’s services to any new structure will require particular care in the context of the service’s current high cost base and pressure to improve following recent OFSTED criticism.
Review of Terms of Reference
The Board discussed and progressed a brief review of its own terms of reference drawing on a recent survey of members’ views. It also took into consideration feedback following the Board’s recent report to the County Council’s Cabinet meeting.
The Board is keen to improve the accessibility of its work to the public and any other interested parties. It believes that the best way to achieve this objective will be to develop a dedicated Improvement Board webpage on the County Council website which will feature:
- the Board’s terms of reference
- its membership
- minutes of all of its meetings
- copies of the chair’s statements published immediately following each of its meetings
- copies of the Board’s six monthly reports to the Cabinet and the County Council
- agendas and any relevant papers
- dates of meetings
- any other relevant documents or information
Notwithstanding the likelihood of a reorganisation of the County’s local government, the Board’s primary focus will continue to be on the improvement of the Council’s financial position and services ahead of the establishment of any successor structure and arrangements. Whilst the overall position has improved over the past six to nine months, it remains fragile compared to other councils of similar size and scale.
The Board’s next meeting will take place on 8 July. The planned agenda includes review and scrutiny of Children’s, Place and Corporate Support Services.