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Northants Council in total collapse: for a citizens' assembly to draw up a 'needs budget'
Steve Score, Socialist Party East Midlands
The unprecedented financial crisis of Northamptonshire's Tory county council continues. The first council to go technically bankrupt for many years is slashing services even further.
But the crisis in Northants is only the first, with many more councils on the brink. East Sussex Tory council has also announced it will be cutting services down to the "core" of statutory services.
The children's commissioner for England has highlighted a national crisis. Councils are failing to meet their obligations to provide services for vulnerable children.
She said there were 1.5 million children in households where there were issues such as severe mental health problems and domestic violence who were not getting the help they need.
Protesters made their presence known once more outside the latest emergency meeting of Northants on 1 August. Councillors discussed a paper proposing up to £70 million of cuts to a budget that had already been devastated.
Even before these cuts, 16 of the 21 county libraries were being closed, along with children's centres, elderly services and subsidies for rural bus services. They say they aim to protect "core services" without detailing what they are.
As Paul Crofts from Save Northants Services said: "The papers talk about protecting children in significant harm. But what about those just at risk of harm? Will the council not intervene?" There is no doubt that vulnerable adults and children will suffer.
Questions have been raised about whether the council can even keep legally required 'statutory services' running because of the severity of its financial crisis. A second 'section 114 notice' has just been issued after the first six months ago, banning all new non-statutory spending.
As a model Tory authority, it outsourced services and made cuts. The huge debt from 'private finance initiative' (PFI) schemes alone costs nearly £50 million a year in repayments.
But let's be clear: this isn't just down to 'mismanagement' by local Tory councillors. This is also a result of the huge cuts made to council funding by the government nationally.
Save Northants Services and public service union Unison have called for an immediate, emergency injection of funds to avert the current crisis. However, they have no trust in the government, left to its own devices, to solve the crisis in a way that will help local services.
Commissioners sent in by the government have proposed dividing the authority. But no amount of reorganisation would solve the lack of money!
The Socialist Party supports the call made by Save Northants Services for a citizens' assembly, involving council staff, trade unions, community campaigns and others who support an anti-austerity agenda, to discuss working out a genuine people's 'needs budget'.
We need an alternative strategy. The cuts must be immediately reversed, services brought back in-house and PFI debt scrapped.
Campaigners are also demanding the council resign and force new elections to give local people a genuine alternative to Tory cuts. The Socialist Party supports this demand - but it is vital that any candidates aiming to replace the Tories adopt a no-cuts budget approach.
With or without an emergency election, a mass campaign needs to be built linking trade unions and the workforce - both direct and outsourced - with the community across Northamptonshire, to force extra funding from the government.
Communities across the county will undoubtedly suffer as a consequence of these cuts. Already in villages surrounding Northampton, bus services have been stripped right back with some ceasing to run altogether, leaving many residents without public transport.
The impact the proposed cuts will have on library services also cannot be underestimated. For several towns and villages in Northamptonshire, libraries are also community hubs, providing a place for jobseekers to search for work, for parents and their children to participate in holiday activities, and also providing bus passes and blue badges.
Without libraries and reliable bus services, residents across Northamptonshire are finding themselves in an impossible predicament, cut off from larger towns and unable to fully participate in social activities.
A proposed 'single-tier' structure to replace Northamptonshire County Council is also in the pipeline. Despite the fact the majority of residents oppose such a measure - particularly in Corby where 98% put forward an emphatic 'No' to a unitary authority - it is looking increasingly likely in the wake of the devastation of Northamptonshire Council's finances.
It is clear the county council is in serious trouble.
Jac Green, Northampton Socialist Party
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