Today I’ve been in Northamptonshire meeting UNISON members affected by council mismanagement, poor leadership and chronic underfunding.
Northamptonshire County Council has become a watchword for local government failure, and a salutary warning to those who believe that privatisation is the answer for local services. This is a council that has pursued an extreme low council tax, high outsourcing policy that has pushed the authority to the very brink – leading to a government investigation that recommended abolishing the county council altogether. It’s also the first council in two decades to be subjected to a section 114 order, ordering it to curb additional spending.
Clearly, this is a council in crisis. And yet it is also a council with staff who are a credit to their community and the whole of local government. The UNISON members I met today were dedicated, thoughtful and passionate public servants. They deliver public services to a high standard in incredibly trying circumstances.
But don’t just take my word for it. An independent investigation – which was highly critical of council leadership – found that they employ “many good, hardworking, dedicated staff who are trying to deliver essential services to residents who need and value what is offered and available. The problems the staff faces are not their fault – in fact, Northamptonshire council’s staff are the solution to the problems faced. Their skills and experience will be vital if local services in Northamptonshire are going to be turned around.
These UNISON members are also incredibly well served by their brilliant UNISON branch. I know how hard branch secretary Penny and chair Andrew have worked to provide every possible support to members under real strain. And they’ve been ably supported by our great regional and national staff.
Today was an opportunity for me to meet with them, hear their concerns and to stand with them on behalf of UNISON’s 1.3 million members. UNISON members everywhere have been pushed to the brink in recent years, but those in Northamptonshire have gone through more than most.
As well as meeting members of the branch, I sat down with the leader of the council and several other key politicians to challenge the approach the council have taken in the past and to demand that the voices of UNISON members are heard now and in future. For too long the council made decisions and ignored the warnings of staff, with disastrous results. It’s time to turn the page on that. UNISON and our members need to be round the table and involved in the decisions about the future of public services in Northamptonshire. By ensuring that, we’ll achieve better outcomes for everyone – and that’s something, after so much hardship, that’s sorely needed.