Two high-flying county execs who were sunning themselves in exotic, sun-soaked destinations while their council was facing serious financial scrutiny have been criticised in a government report.
The inspector called in to scrutinise the running of Northamptonshire County Council after the authority’s recent financial crisis was scathing in his condemnation of both the former chief executive Paul Blantern, who resigned in October 2017, and the now interim chief executive Damon Lawrenson, who was formerly the authority’s finance boss.
Jet-setter Dr Blantern was 7,764 miles away in Bali in 2015 when there was a critical Local Government Association Peer Review at the council.
In the Northamptonshire County Council Best Value report issued today (March 15), lead inspector Max Caller CBE said: “Even when the LGA was invited to undertake a peer review of the financial situation, at a time convenient to the authority, the Chief Executive did not think it important enough to be in the country for the whole of the review period or the feedback session. Even now not much has changed at NCC.”
And when the most recent financial crisis peaked last month and officers were forced to issue a section 114 notice, the first of its kind in two decades, the new chief executive Damon Lawrenson was on a plane to Dubai, 3,447 miles from Northamptonshire.
Of sun-seeker Mr Lawrenson, the report said: “During the period of this inspection the interim chief executive was abroad for a time during a period which also coincided with the issue of a Section 114 report late on Friday, 2nd February, by the newly in-post Section 151 Officer, a report that had been signalled to the inspection team and the external auditors (and presumably the other statutory officers) before he left the country. This left the leadership of the organisation in something of a limbo during the first crucial days following imposition of expenditure controls. It would have been expected that councillors and staff would have wanted explanation and reassurance about the implications for themselves their jobs and services.”
In this lunchtime’s press conference, BBC news producer Matt Precey asked whether new council leader Cllr Matt Golby was aware that this chief executive was in Bali during the peer review, and if he knew that Mr Lawrenson was in Dubai when the S114 notice, banning anything other than statutory spending, was issued in February.
In response to criticism of his trip to Dubai, Mr Lawrenson said when he left to go on holiday, the authority had been managing through the 2017-18 financial year and that he was due to discuss it on his return. But further discussions while he was in the air resulted in the S114 notice being suddenly issued. He added: “There was a capital receipt we were hoping to land and it came to light it wasn’t going to happen in this financial year and the S151 officer had to make a judgement call and in conversation with the external auditor he had to allow that (to happen).”
Cllr Golby said: “I know at that time the former chief executive had made comments clear to the peer review team and that formed a part of their judgement.”