National Conservative decisions have local consequences – we’re seeing this particularly vividly in Northamptonshire where our County Council, which also happens to be led by the Conservatives, has declared itself bankrupt.
When the Chief Financial Officer issued a Section 114 Notice in March, it was the first council to do so in over twenty years. The notice essentially declares bankruptcy and prohibits any spending beyond essential, statutory provisions including support for vulnerable children and the elderly.
The Conservatives have run the council since 2005 and have proudly posed as the poster boy for the Conservatives in local government, following the Eric Pickles school of cuts to a tee. Those in charge outsourced vital services and spent their reserves, just as they had been told to do so. Despite their loyalty to the Conservative vision for local government, the Conservative councillors have been attacked by their own MPs, who have said the crisis is ‘self inflicted’ as they desperately tried to distance themselves and the government from the failure.
Since the end of last year, when bankruptcy seemed inevitable, we’ve seen cuts of over £40 million hitting our libraries and children’s centres, including the renowned Pen Green, and our bus subsidies have been cut meaning some people in our rural communities are left without any public transport for the very basics like getting to a doctor or picking up groceries. Our trading standards and budget for road repairs and gritting has also been slashed, taking unnecessary risks with our safety. I had to fight to ensure our nurseries and childminders were paid on time after a local nursery owner came to me telling me that she was owed over £60,000 by the council – the council has sought to delay their payment to nursery owners by six weeks creating major problems for the cash flow of these small businesses. I’ve visited a number of local organisations who have contracts with the council including some that provide mental health care, wellbeing activities for the elderly, and vital domestic violence support, to name just a few, who still haven’t been told their budget for this financial year or given their quarterly payment that was due in April – they’re currently running on reserves but they will run out soon.
The lack of funding has now reached the point that the council does not even have any contingency funds to pay to make a bridge both fit for purpose and safe. Two weeks ago, a weight limit of three tonnes was imposed on a frequently used bridge in Oundle. This will impact deliveries for local businesses but also mean school buses from neighbouring Thrapston (who had their secondary school closed under the Conservatives) will need to be diverted, likely through the narrow, cobbled streets of the quiet market town. The absurdity doesn’t end there – there have even been reports that there isn’t a budget for sundries to cover toilet roll for staff at some of the council’s sites.
Throughout all of this debacle, Northamptonshire’s MPs, who are all Conservative, have condemned the cuts locally, blaming the mismanagement of their own councillors, with some even submitting petitions against the closure of vital services that cannot afford to go on. This really is mind boggling when their voting record shows they have consistently voted for cuts to local government budgets – most recently, all seven of Northamptonshire’s Conservative MPs voted for 44 per cent cuts. The way they have voted in Westminster has had a direct impact on the quality of our services in Northamptonshire. If there hadn’t been such a substantial cut to our local budget, would the council have gone bankrupt, and would our services be slashed the way they are?
The Conservatives want to be known for their economic competence but this is impossible for them now in Northamptonshire. Northamptonshire County Council might have been the first to go bust but it won’t be the last – various predictions from those in the know suggest that between 10-15 councils could be on the verge of bankruptcy too. This cannot be a coincidence – it’s the result of chronic national underfunding. If more councils do fail surely the Conservative MPs and government will no longer be able to attempt to blame local mismanagement, although I wouldn’t put it past them to try.