'Children's services are chaotic and other services are concerning' says Northants commissioners

The commissioners have described children's services as operating in 'chaotic conditions',
The commissioners have described children's services as operating in 'chaotic conditions',

In their regular report back to government Northamptonshire's county council's two commissioners have laid out the current situation at the under pressure authority.

The commissioners watching over Northamptonshire County Council have told the Government the authority’s children’s services are ‘chaotic’ and says the state of other services concerns them greatly.

In their fourth report published today, commissioners Tony McArdle and Brian Roberts have named trading standards, waste management, highways, emergency planning and culture and heritage as the services at greatest risk.

Most of these services have had their budgets slashed over the past few years as the authority ran out of money in Spring 2018 and could no longer provide a number of its core services at full capacity.

The commissioners have also said children’s services – which is due to be turned into an independent trust – is operating in chaotic conditions and beleaguered by poor performance.

The commissioners have turned the spotlight onto services in their reporting after largely focusing on finance since they were appointed back in May 2018.

With finances now under better control – the authority is predicting a £500,000 overspend at the end of the financial year – the commissioners look to be concentrating on improving some services that had been pushed to the side during aftermath of the council’s financial crash.

The report, which was written back at the end of October, says: “The poor operational state of many of the council’s services concerns us greatly, as previous reports make clear.

“Some service improvement measures are in hand, and coupled with the efforts of the Council’s transformation team, alongside the use of some funding through the Business Rates Pilot, further improvements are planned.

“This is all with the intention of ensuring the new unitary authorities get off to the best possible start.

“However, the council’s inability to use some of its own finance to invest in rebuilding the services at greatest risk, such as Trading Standards; Waste Management; Highways Management; Emergency Planning; Heritage and Cultural services, and Country Parks remains an anxiety.

“Central to addressing this is an ability to exercise greater financial control in areas such as Children’s Services.

“This control is critical to both balancing the budget this year and enabling an underspend that allows for investment in these services.

“It is a major focus for the remainder of this year’s work and is a priority activity for next year’s budget planning.

“To give greater management capacity to Children’s Services to drive performance improvement and improve budget management, we authorised the release of contingency funds to create four new posts at assistant director level, amongst other enhancements.

“These posts are currently coming on line and we believe that the opportunity can be taken to make the savings necessary in the service’s operations.

“Poor performance and the chaotic conditions under which the service operates are key reasons why staff turnover is unsustainably high.

“This represents a drag on effective performance as well as posing a high financial cost due to the consequent reliance upon agency staff.

“A proper and capable management cohort in the service is vital to its future.”

The situation with LGSS – a service the council shares with neighbouring authorities – is also creating problems according to the commissioners.

Discussions are ongoing about devolving the shared services back to the individual councils but no agreement has been reached as yet.

The commissioners do say in their letter to Secretary of State for local government Robert Kendrick that significant improvement has been made in the council’s financial management.

A response from housing minister Luke Hall commends the commissioners and says ‘ you have continued to strengthen governance and steer the council to maintain robust control of finances.’

The number of days the commissioners work has also been increased from two per week to an additional 35 per year.