Northamptonshire’s libraries will stay open another year, says final budget plan

Northamptonshire County Council leader Cllr Heather Smith
Northamptonshire County Council leader Cllr Heather Smith

At-risk libraries in Middleton Cheney and Woodford Halse could be handed over to communities in the next two years under county council cuts, a final budget plan has revealed.

The cash-strapped Northamptonshire County Council’s final budget proposals were published yesterday (Monday, February 5) and include a council tax hike of 5.98 per cent and ‘revised’ plans for libraries, trading standards and buses.

Council leader Cllr Heather Smith said: “We have a duty to announce our final budget proposals today to allow the council tax precept to be set, but there has to be an understanding that revisions may be required given the Section 114 notice issued last week.

“Given the uncertainty in this year’s budget and the potential impact on the current year’s spending, the budget for 2018/19 will clearly be under constant review.

“We are legally bound to set a budget for the coming financial year but the challenge we are now facing is unprecedented and there will no doubt be difficult decisions to be made over the coming weeks and months.”

The controversial proposals, which were open to public consultation last year, included options to close up to 28 libraries and make almost half of its trading standards staff redundant.

Officers recommend choosing ‘option one’ which would see smaller libraries including Middleton Cheney and Woodford Halse handed over to volunteers with Brackley retained by the council.

The council says it intends to introduce a ‘community-managed library model’ where it hands over responsibility of smaller libraries to unpaid local volunteers.

The local authority will provide financial support to the libraries during 2018/19 as a ‘transition year’ and pay a year of rent (but not gas, water or electric bills) from April 2019/20. After that, libraries will belong to the community.

Communities whose libraries have been under threat have come out in force in opposition to the plans, with action groups set up in Brackley and Middleton Cheney to fight the plans.

A council tax increase of 5.98 per cent has also been put forward. This increase takes advantage of Government-approved scheme to increase tax without triggering a referendum normally needed to do so.

There are also revised proposals relating to Trading Standards and the County Connect and Call Connect on-demand bus services.

The full proposals will be heard at a cabinet meeting on February 13.

It comes after the county council issued a section 114 notice on Friday, meaning it cannot spend any money except on safeguarding and essential services.

It means no new expenditure is permitted, with the exception of statutory services for safeguarding vulnerable people.

The notice has been served in light of the severe financial challenge facing the authority and the significant risk that it will not be in a position to deliver a balanced budget by the end of the year.

Councillors have 21 days to discuss the implications of the section 114 notice and this is due to be addressed at the full council meeting on February 22.

The notice does not affect staff pay and the council will continue to meet its statutory functions.

Labour parliamentary candidates called on the communities secretary to step in and run the council in response.

And on Sunday, the county’s MPs announced they had ‘no faith’ in the council’s leadership and want the Government to step in and take control.

In a joint statement, the seven MPs said the administration was to blame not the Government and that efforts by MPs, and backbench county councillors, to scrutinise the financial performance of the council were dismissed.

The MPs are Michael Ellis (Northampton North), Andrew Lewer (Northampton South), Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry), Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire), Philip Hollobone (Kettering), Peter Bone (Wellingborough) and Tom Pursglove (Corby).