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- Who Will You Vote For In May? Join Our Election Poll At The End Of This Story
By 2020 the county council’s funding rug will be well and truly pulled from underneath its feet in one of the biggest shake-ups of the way local authorities are funded in generations.
It means that whichever party takes over at County Hall in May’s elections will have to live without the comfort of a Government revenue support grant, which will end at the turn of the decade.
In recent years it has become the norm to prefix any discussion of the council with the words “cash-strapped” and Daventry District Council even went as far as labelling the county council at the risk of “insolvency” in 2016.
So managing finances and avoiding big unpopular cutbacks will be a key challenge for May’s winners in a county that pays the lowest council tax in the country.
For part two of our election coverage this year we have taken a look at how each of the main parties plans to balance the books up to 2021 – from massive “invest to save” schemes to the “next generation model and “zero-based budgeting”.
“Our first thing is stability and reassurance,” said Andre Gonzalez De Savage, the man running the Conservatives’ campaign to re-take County Hall.
Despite the criticism of their policy to keep council tax frozen the Conservative group are not going to budge on their policy of taxing low.
People living in Northamptonshire pay £102 less council tax than the average, a measure that has earned them critics and plaudits. After three succesive election wins though, it is easy to see why they are sticking to their guns.
Ultimately the party’s proposed panacea for dwindling resources is to move all the authority’s services over to a series of trusts, in a move being called the next generation model.
“It is already making the council more efficient, said Mr Gonzales de Savage on the radical measure.
“Come 2020 we will need to be self sufficient, so efficient will be key.”
The trusts carrying out council services will be free to bid for more work and will be able to generate revenue on their own, unlike the council’s current in-house departments.
“We are already £102 more efficient then the national average,” he added, relating to the fact taxpayers pay less than the national average in Northamptonshire.
“It means we are not delivering every single service, we are delivering the services that are the most important.”
Elsewhere the Conservatives propose to continue with a policy of joining services with neighbouring councils to avoid duplication.
The county council’s budgetary forecasting “isn’t fit for purpose”, says the Green Party, which has pledged to examine millions the council is currently paying in interest on loan agreements.
Spokesman for the group Steve Miller said: “The council has £150 million in long term debt to private banks, some of them in the UK and some of them elsewhere in Europe.
“Every year, millions of pounds of Northamptonshire council tax is paying the interest on these loans.
“The council should not be exposed to the risks that these loans present, and Green Party councillors would make it a priority to examine the loan book to ensure that previous bad decisions don’t continue to impact on public services.”
Mr Miller said that, although the current deficit is largely being caused by cuts in funding on a national level, the current situation has been made worse by decisions made by the Conservative administration.
“Years of Council tax freezes delivered little benefit to the citizens of Northamptonshire,” he said. “And the drastic cuts over the last two years represent a last-ditch attempt to balance the books.”
In challenging successive Tory budgets in recent years, Labour has advocated balancing the books by ploughing funds into a series of money-making investments.
And in 2017 the party is proposing the same.
The Labour man hoping to become the next finance cabinet member on the county council, Mick Scrimshaw, said: “One big plan we have is to increase revenue from commercial investment.
“For example the city of Manchester owns Stansted Airport, they make £11 million net profit each year.
“I’m not suggesting we can have a project of that size but there are massive opportunities for us to use the estates we have and invest in projects that will bring in revenue.”
The main opposition party has ben critical of the Conservatives’ decision to keep council tax £102 lower than the national average through a series of successive freezes.
If they were to take control of county hall, Labour say they would not shy away from measured rises to pay for services.
“We would like nothing more than to keep council tax low if at all possible,” said Mr Scrimshaw.
“The problem is the county’s finances have been mishandled for a number of years.
“The last two years they have had to put it up to the maximum. The truth is, until the financial situation has been sorted that will remain the same.
“Undoubtedly we want to reduce it if possible, but we won’t do if we can’t.”
Labour has produced a seven-point plan to balance the council’s books which includes a “root and branch” reform of the way budgets are drawn up, a review of senior managment and spending on consultants.
The Liberal Democrats say the county council needs to get “back to basics” with its budget by effectively reviewing all the services it needs from the ground up.
Their aim would be to give more funding to the county’s trading standards division and to honour contracts with third party sector organisations, but to pay for it they too have not discounted raising council tax.
The current third party at County Hall say the Conservatives were wrong “and knew they were wrong” to keep freezing tax and even won elections “on this false agenda”.
Lib Dems leader Brendan Glynane said: “What they failed to realise was that it is all well and good freezing council tax, but all the while your bills go up, wages go up, your National Insurance contributions go up, utilities cost more.
“They should have at least made sure they increased council tax enough to cover their costs.
“Their finances have been very poorly planned over the years.”
The Lib Dems, who have proposed spreading savings over a longer time period, are advocating a “zero-based” budgeting system, also being proposed by UKIP.
“It is about looking at all the services we provide and thinking – do we as a council need to provide all of them?” said Mr Glynane.
“Can some of these be provided by the NHS or a third sector organisation?
“We can make huge savings that way.”
While the Conservatives say their next generation model is necessary to keep the council afloat, the Lib Dems want to take a fresh look at it and may even consider stopping the project following a full review.
UKIP’s policy is to keep council tax as “low as possible”, but balance the books by carrying out a review of all the services the council currently offers, according to Rose Gibbins, the former Parliamentary candidate who intends to stand in the previously Conservative Nene ward.
Unlike Labour and the Lib Dems, UKIP is taking a less critical line on the Tory council tax freezes of recent years.
“I can’t comment on how the county council has managed its budget over the years,” Mrs Gibbins said.
“We need to look very carefully at what the financial situation is before we make any pledges about what we can do.
“Under Tory control budgets have been repeatedly overspent.
“In the past five years, the council has accrued some £50 million of new debt, raided the reserves and sold off of assets in order to balance the books.
“The county council needs to make £58 million in cuts just to balance its books this year. A two per cent council tax rise for adult social care will only go towards paying care home staff the living wage.”
UKIP, unlike other opposition parties, has no intention of ripping up the Tories’ next generation model plans here in Northamptonshire though as Mrs Gibbins said it would not make financial sense.
“If they intend to get rid of it, can you tell me where they expect to get the money?” She said.
“The whole council has to be re-thought.
“Why would you dismiss that idea out of hand because it was made by another party?”