The third meeting of the Northamptonshire Improvement Board was held at One, Angel Square, Northampton on 9 January, 2019.
The meeting focused on two critically important challenges for the county council: the ongoing work to stabilise and strengthen its financial position; and the need to address poor performance within some areas of children's services highlighted by the recent OFSTED inspection. The board also discussed the progress of preparations for the expected local government reorganisation within Northamptonshire.
The board received a presentation focusing in particular on the three financial years 2017/18 - 2019/20. In overall terms it was pleased to note that the position is improving following the announcement by Government of a capitalisation dispensation of up to £70m in response to a submission made by the commissioners. The dispensation will enable the council to fund its anticipated deficit of £35m in 2017/18 which remains subject to audit. It will also provide up to £15m in-year flexibility to help manage the financial position in the current year, and earmarks £20m to be set aside as a reserve for 2019/20. The dispensation itself is being funded by the use of the council's own capital receipts.
Work is continuing to try to achieve a balanced outturn for the current year, 2018/19. Latest forecasts suggest a possible deficit of £11m but further efforts to close this gap will continue throughout the final quarter. A number of important areas of uncertainty require resolution. The board noted that final results remain heavily dependent on successful progress being made over the next few weeks.
A draft 2019/20 budget has been prepared and is currently the subject of a public consultation exercise. The board was able to discuss and probe some of the detailed elements of the draft budget, focusing in particular on the wide ranging initiatives which are being proposed to deliver a total of £43m of savings, equivalent to approximately 10 per cent of the net county council budget. It welcomed the fact that work to ensure the robustness of detailed plans to deliver savings is continuing alongside the consultation process. The board stressed the importance of that process requiring active engagement by both members and officers of the council.
In overall terms the board was encouraged that the council is approaching its 2019/20 budget in an appropriately professional manner with a focus on developing a robust and realistic plan which can be delivered.
The board was also able to look at a high level summary position in relation to medium term financial plans (MTFP) for 2020/21 - 2022/23. There is an expectation that two new unitary authorities will assume responsibility for the council's services at an early point in that timespan. At this stage the board noted that the MTFP paints a relatively encouraging picture in relation to the resources available to maintain stable services over this period.
Improving Children's Services - Responding to OFSTED
The board received a detailed presentation about the measures which have been, and are being, put in place to respond to criticism of the council's children's services following an OFSTED inspection in October. Malcolm Newsam, the commissioner with responsibility for children's services, expressed support for the actions which have been taken to grip some of the key challenges including high levels of unallocated cases. As a result of concerted efforts the volume of such cases had reduced from more than 380 in mid-October to 121 at the end of December and is set to fall further. However, he also drew attention to the scale of the challenge facing the council, including in particular the need to invest in much better management and information systems.
Children's services were subject to special measures previously and the council acknowledges that key improvements made previously have simply not been sustained since 2016. Significantly, in spite of austerity, Northamptonshire's children's services remain a relatively high spender compared to other county councils. The challenge now is not only to drive immediate improvements, including through effective partnership working with other agencies, but also to ensure that they are embedded for the long term. The board recognised that in the short term the uncertainties inherent in local government reorganisation - particularly potential impacts on staff retention and recruitment - may make that challenge even more demanding.
Part of the board's remit is to focus on the need for services to be placed in the best possible position ahead of the expected transition to a unitary structure. As well as returning to review the progress of improvement plans for children's services at a future meeting - either in May or July - the board has requested a presentation and position statement on adult services in Northamptonshire for its next meeting in March.
Local Government Reorganisation
The board was updated on the progress of preparatory work in relation to the expected transition to two unitary councils which remains subject to formal decision making by Government and the making of relevant orders by Parliament. The board acknowledged the sheer scale of the change programmes required especially if new unitaries are established to take over responsibility for services with effect from 2020/21. County staff are currently heavily committed to stabilising and improving the position of services within the framework and context of the current structure. The need, alongside district and borough councils, to also resource and manage major projects to design and establish the two new unitary councils, ensuring that they are well placed to manage a successful transition and maintain continuity of services, is a daunting challenge.
The next meeting of the improvement board will take place on 6 March, 2019.