Northamptonshire County Council is ‘changing its approach’ with its latest budget, according to its senior leaders.
And its leader has acknowledged that if such an approach had been taken in the past, then the authority ‘might have been in a different place’.
On first glimpses of this draft 2019/20 budget, a 2.99 per cent increase in council tax is arguably one of few headline grabbers in a £43million savings scheme, and on face value appears to be nowhere near as brutal as many had feared.
And a helping hand from the Government allowing the council to use £70million of its capital funding for tackling last year's £35million deficit and replenishing its reserves has played its part.
Concerns had been raised from some quarters of fellow local councils that not enough tough decisions were being made by the county. Instead, the budget appears mainly to focus on making the council perform its own functions better than it has done in recent years.
Many of the savings are bringing services ‘in-house’, a direct contradiction to former chief executive Dr Paul Blantern’s ‘next generation’ model of outsourcing to external organisations.
The new approach, instead, will see investment in adult social care centres to provide new accommodation and services, and ‘reduce the cost of using external service providers’.
Council leader Matt Golby is in a unique position to judge the strategy of the ‘new’ county council to the one that had racked up so much debt that it effectively declared itself bankrupt twice within 12 months.
Asked whether this budget was ‘too late’ to have saved all the turmoil, he said: “I was involved in the previous cabinet and this feels very different. One of the commissioners Tony McArdle, when he came in, made his view known that Northamptonshire had enough money to deal with its issues. And yes, we probably do have enough money to deal with our issues, and that’s been quite hard for me to comprehend that.
“It’s a shame in one regard. If this approach had been taken three to four years ago we would have been in a different place. But this is about how we move things forward.
“My responsibility is dealing with the present. We have progressed but we have got a long way to go.”
The question of where accountability lies for the previous poor decision making is somewhat skirted over by new chief executive Theresa Grant, but she did say: “We are changing our approach. We are doing some things differently because otherwise you get the same outcome.”
Councillor Golby added: “I sat through the budget last year, and it’s a million miles away from the feeling I had that time. It’s a very different council. There’s a lot more challenge around the numbers and the information we are presented with, certainly at cabinet level.
“Obviously we have had the benefit of the commissioners, and Theresa Grant has made a massive difference. I have only been confident to say that I’ve felt that flickering of light in the last few weeks.
“I don’t want to do people who were here previously too much disservice.
“My responsibility is trying to sort this place out. We are moving this on. I have enjoyed the challenge in a weird way. It’s been incredibly challenging, and while we need to acknowledge the past and take responsibility, I am hoping that we are turning the corner.”