Northamptonshire elections postponed in crisis-hit county

Northamptonshire County CouncilImage source, PA
Image caption,
In August, the authority backed "radical" cuts to services to tackle its funding shortfall

Local elections have been postponed in a county with a crisis-hit council because of costs that are "hard to justify", a minister said.

The Northamptonshire elections were due to take in May but have been put on hold while a consultation on a new local government structure takes place.

The county council is projected to overspend by £30m this financial year.

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said polls "would involve significant costs that would be hard to justify".

Northamptonshire County Council has a deficit of up to £70m on its £435m budget for 2018-19.

The government has just taken over the council's children's services department amid concerns those in its care were at "potential risk" and social workers were "overwhelmed".

In a written statement, Mr Brokenshire said elections were important as the "foundation of local democracy".

Image caption,
Northamptonshire County Council's cost cutting measures include clawing back £6m by increasing the number of people who pay council tax

But he said until a decision had been made on the future structure of local government no elections should be held.

Eight councils in Northamptonshire are now to offer suggestions for a new structure by 25 January.

Options include replacing the two-tier county and district structure with two unitary authorities.

Mr Brokenshire said it was possible councillors "would serve for only one year with their council then being abolished" if the elections took place.

"Elections in such circumstances risk confusing voters and would involve significant costs that would be hard to justify," he said.

The leader of Wellingborough Borough Council, Martin Griffiths, said work already been done on ideas for the restructure and this would be "stepped up".

Jonathan Nunn, leader of Northampton Borough Council, said: "Given the tight timescales we have continued with our work on unitary councils, and so it's good to now have certainty that things are progressing in Westminster."

Mr Brokenshire also issued the first report by commissioners appointed this year to run the county council.

It confirmed the council's budget deficit of up to £70m would be cleared using capital receipts from the sale of assets to balance the books.

But because of a projected overspend of £30m in 2018/19 all non-essential spending was being frozen.

Only identified "core services" will be funded and money controlled by finance officers overseen by appointed outside monitors.

"We are confident that the sum of these measures will deliver considerable savings," the commissioners' report said.

Analysis: Unprecedented financial move

By Tom Barton, political reporter

The news that the government is to allow Northamptonshire County Council to use £70m of savings, normally reserved for capital projects such as buildings and infrastructure, is unprecedented.

The move will allow the council to pay back some of last year's £35m overspend and give it a real chance of balancing its books this coming year.

Other councils facing extreme financial pressure will be watching this development with interest, and many will hope they will be allowed to do the same thing.

In reality, that it is highly unlikely, since accounting rules normally forbid the switching of money between capital and revenue funds. Communities Secretary James Brokenshire would have to give his personal sanction to any other requests to follow in Northamptonshire's footsteps.

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