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Early this year I brought you the news that all seven of Northamptonshire’s Tory MPs had attacked the Tory administration of Northampton County Council (NCC). They had lost faith in their political bedfellows on the council
In response, then council leader Heather Smith told BBC Look East that it had warned the government as early as 2013-14 that the level of funding was unsustainable.
The MPs included several high-ranking government ministers who said the local Tory administration was to blame, not the government. It became a real Tory versus Tory catfight.
Tory ministers, MPs and NCC councillors were squabbling over just who, within the Tory Party, was to blame for the total financial breakdown of the county council’s finances.
Their highly critical statement said that the MPs wanted the government to appoint commissioners to take over the running of the council once the current, ongoing inspection was complete.
Soon the inspectors arrived.
At 10 to five on Friday evening, just as many workers were about to leave for home, NCC quietly issued a section 114 notice — the nearest thing to bankruptcy for local authorities, which by law are not allowed to actually declare themselves bankrupt.
Most staff heard the news by email that the NCC had effectively gone bust. It would lead to a most stressful weekend for the harassed staff. Morale was already at rock-bottom and this has made it much worse.
At least, we locals thought, it couldn’t get worse, but yes it could and it did.
Now as the smoke clears and mirrors are sold off to the antique shops of the Welly Road, the real figures of just how much the council owes are revealed.
It turns out it is well over a billion pounds. That amounts to over £1,400 for every single person living in Northamptonshire.
At the end of this financial year on March 31, NCC owed £1,012,258,000 to various different organisations and had a number of higher-interest loans in its debt portfolio.
It owes £415,233 million to the treasury’s Public Works Loan Board, has £294,700m of non-PWLB borrowing, owes £108,132m to short-term creditors, £186,965m of long-term finance and PFI liability and £7,497m of short-term finance and PFI liability.
Yet while the money for children’s services, vulnerable adults, libraries and even filling pot holes was going down the drain and debts piling up in this most extreme example of Tory austerity, those very same Tory councillors were spending public money on, among other things, hiring themselves a luxury hospitality box at Northampton Saints rugby ground and renting a vintage plane to fly past an event.
These payments were made by a company totally owned by Northamptonshire County Council whose directors were Tory councillors.
Northamptonshire Enterprise Agency (NEA Properties) was incorporated in 1983 to promote the county. It managed a number of units at the University of Northampton campus.
Tory councillors Bill Parker and Andre Gonzales De Savage served as directors in the company since 2010 and 2007 respectively.
It sold the university campus properties in September 2014 for £880,000 and £700,000 was transferred back to the council, but £180,000 was retained by NEA Properties and spent on other less essential items. One local Labour supporter described them as “junkets.”
More than £4,000 was used to hire a Flying Fortress B17 vintage aircraft to fly past a memorial event at Grafton Underwood. Money was also spent on other services for this event.
NEA Properties also spent £2,700 on a heritage dinner with string quartet.
A audit report also revealed the company spent more than £250 just on “cheese, biscuits, etc” for a stately home event.
Former Ukip councillor and independent financial adviser Michael Brown blew the whistle in January 2017. An audit was commissioned and found the payments were made with “minimal” governance and documentation.
The audit was told that £80,000 spent on Northampton Saints went on the redevelopment of a new stand at the Franklin’s Gardens ground, but the rugby club has denied this was what was purchased.
A Saints spokesman said it could “confirm the county council had a box as part of a marketing package which they purchased.”
Brown said the lack of a detailed audit trail was a “unbelievable in this day and age.”
He added: “As a public organisation they were keeping secret the accounts of a limited company it owns under the small companies exception.
“This should not happen as it leaves itself open to abuse of public funds.”
Theresa May’s Tory government sent in commissioners to oversee Tory Northamptonshire in April this year and, just a few days ago, the council was forced to hold an emergency meeting to reverse many of its previous assurances on what jobs and services it had previously promised to preserve.
Now it seemed no service was safe and no employee could guarantee future employment with the county council.
One of the most savage of new batch of cuts was the decision to close 21 libraries all across the county. The Tory council reckoned, however, without a feisty 11-year-old girl who is too young to be named for legal reasons.
She and her family challenged these library closures in the High Court and won after the judge ruled that the council would have to revisit its plans while “paying attention to its legal obligations.”
Mrs Justice Yip, announcing her judicial review judgment, found that the council’s decision-making process had been unlawful and that it had not properly considered whether it would be operating a comprehensive and efficient library service, as required by law, once the much-criticised closures had gone ahead.
This is just one aspect of the fight back against the council.
Are the local Conservative councillors incompetent? Dishonest? Uncaring? Financially illiterate? Actually the real answer is much simpler. They are just your average Tories.
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