The second meeting of the Northamptonshire Improvement Board was held at One, Angel Square, Northampton on 2 November, 2018.
There were open and constructive discussions on a number of important plans whose development and implementation are key to the County Council's recovery. They are also crucial in ensuring its finances and services are in the best possible position ahead of the expected transition to unitary local government. The plans included:
- The Improvement Plan which addresses the issues identified in the LGA Finance Peer Review and the Best Value Inspection
- The Stabilisation Plan which focuses on the challenge of ensuring that the County Council achieves its financial targets in the current financial year
- The Workforce Strategy which covers issues such as how staff are led and supported as well as strategies for changing culture and behaviours
The Board was impressed by the efforts being made by the County Council to address its wide-ranging and challenging change agenda. In an open and honest discussion on the Improvement Plan, the Board emphasised the need to identify a relatively small number of top priorities and ensure that they are addressed in a way that adds real value and makes a difference.
Too many priorities is the same as having no priorities. Additionally, the Board stressed the need to be clear about the impact which key improvements are expected to deliver, and the importance of having carefully designed performance measures in place to ensure that planned outcomes are being achieved. Finally, the Board highlighted the importance of having a very clear message on Improvement as well as sharing information with partner organisations with a view to identifying opportunities for collaboration which could save money and improve services.
How is the council's financial management?
The Board recognised the critical importance of the Stabilisation Plan and welcomed the efforts made to identify and implement additional initiatives to address the currently projected £20m gap in the 2018/19 budget, including the prudent approach to benefit recognition. Delivering a balanced financial outturn is vitally important and a critical confidence-building measure in demonstrating that the County Council's financial management performance is on an upward trajectory. The Board noted that the plans leave very little room for error and that a number of measures require the support of Borough and District Councils with whom helpful discussions are currently ongoing.
The Board remains concerned about the challenge of funding the deficit of approximately £35m from 2017/18. An application has been made to Government for a special dispensation to capitalise the deficit. If granted, the plan is to apply capital receipts to fund the deficit. The Board was strongly supportive of this application as it was the best available course of action in the circumstances. The Board is sceptical about whether the alternative option of making further cuts in 2018/19 is achievable in the time available, and is concerned about potentially irreparable damage to services and impact on residents. However, the Board noted that Government support for such a dispensation was unlikely to be forthcoming unless the County Council was seen to be taking effective action to avoid a further deficit in 2018/19.
What steps are being taken towards unitary councils?
The Workforce Strategy was at an earlier stage of development. In carrying out further work the Board advised that more weight needed to be given to the likelihood of the Council's abolition in 2020. The focus should be on the essential changes which can be delivered and realise benefits in that highly compressed timetable, as well as helping to prepare the ground for the development of positive cultures within the future unitary councils.
The Board also discussed the progress of the preparations for the expected local government reorganisation across Northamptonshire. Preparations are at an early stage. A programme of regular meetings has been established to enable senior members and officers of affected councils to work collaboratively together. The Board is keen to be well informed and to lend any assistance it can to resolve problems or difficulties, should any arise, which might inhibit this vital work. The Board plans to have a standing item on the journey to unitaries at each of its future meetings.
The Board will continue to pay close attention to the development and implementation of the Council's various plans at future meetings. It will also focus on the Council's emerging 2019/20 Budget at its next meeting which is scheduled to take place on 9 January, 2019.
Finally, the Board agreed to invite Keith Makin and Tim Bishop, Chairs of the Northamptonshire Safeguarding Boards for, respectively, Children and Adults, to join its membership. This will strengthen the Improvement Board's ability to help ensure that important frontline services remain a key priority.