Northamptonshire County Council leader refuses to quit over cash crisis

Northamptonshire County Council leader Heather Smith. (Picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
Northamptonshire County Council leader Heather Smith. (Picture: Kirsty Edmonds)

The under-fire leader of Northamptonshire County Council said she will not resign after more than half of her Tory colleagues called for the Government to take over running the council.

Yesterday 20 Conservative backbenchers issued a statement blaming the Tory administration at County Hall for the financial crisis that led to the authority issuing a Section 114 order, freezing all new spending except on statutory requirements.

They, like the county’s seven Conservative MPs who also criticised the leadership of the council, said they had not been given clear information about the crisis facing the council.

While Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner (PCC) Stephen Mold said officers may have to deal with more missing persons cases and anti-social behaviour while County Hall spending is on hold.

Last night leader Councillor Heather Smith issued a response, stating that now was not the time to make changes at the top.

“I am aware that approximately half of the Conservative councillors, including a significant number of recently elected members, have issued a statement supporting the press release previously issued by Northamptonshire’s MPs,” she said.

“The councillors have understandable concerns about the financial position within the county council. Now is not the time to change the leadership within the county council.

“I have been given the support of the cabinet and others within our Conservative Group.

“It is the most important time in the financial year for setting the budget and the council tax. This is a statutory requirement placed on all elected members and this process has to be completed.

“The consequences of not setting and approving a budget during the month of February would be severe.

“The Government Minister announced today that the independent Best Value inspection currently underway will be completed by mid-March and no interim report is expected.

“As I have previously said, I welcome the inspection process and await the findings.”

The Section 114 notice that a chief financial officer issued at the weekend means all spending except on keeping children and vulnerable adults safe is on hold.

Replacing staff who leave will not automatically be sanctioned.

But the elected PCC Mr Mold believes it could lead to mental health work normally handled by the county council’s social care team, for example, being passed directly to police.

Officers may see more missing persons enquiries and anti-social behaviour because usual interventions are on pause.

Mr Mold said he also fears that the Section 114 notice could jeopardise major plans to take over the fire service and protect its funding – and could therefore impact on firefighters’ capacity to keep the people safe.

Attempts to shift money from the fire service to other council funds are possible and Mr mold wants to make sure that does not happen.

“In the interests of public safety I am closely monitoring the situation at Northamptonshire County Council to ensure that any potential impacts on policing in the county are dealt with pro-actively,” he said.

“The full impact of the Section 114 notice that has been issued by the county council is not yet clear, however in light of its issue, I would urge the Home Office to make a swift decision on the business case I submitted last year proposing the transfer of the governance of the fire and rescue service to my office.

“My number one priority is the safety of the people of Northamptonshire, and ensuring that the fire service is able to operate effectively, within a clearly defined budget, is imperative.

“To delay this decision any further would risk the safety of residents of the county and I hope that given the extraordinary circumstances, the Home Office will approve this transfer as soon as is humanly possible.”