£64m gap down to ‘historic decisions’ not to raise council tax 

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha and opposition leader Steve Count.

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha and opposition leader Steve Count: A peer review of the county council says they observed “inappropriate behaviour” from the opposition at a meeting. - Credit: Harry Rutter

Historic decisions not to increase council tax to the maximum allowed has resulted in significant lost income, says a report to Cambridgeshire County Council. 

“There is a need for speed in getting to grips with a looming challenge of a £64m gap over the next five years,” the rainbow alliance was told. 

The conclusion was reached by a team of experienced councillors and officers from other local authorities invited to conduct a peer review of Cambridgeshire County Council. 

The team also noted there were “significant annual overspends on the SEND High Needs Block”. 

And this has resulted in “an accumulated deficit which requires a contingency plan should Government not provide the anticipated support” 

The council was urged to “establish a clear council tax strategy for the next four years”. 

Councillors and officers from Bedford, Ipswich, St Helens, Hertfordshire were included in the Local Government Association peer group invited to Cambridgeshire.  

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Over five days of 40 onsite and virtual meetings in July they spoke to more than 250 people including a range of council staff together with members and external stakeholders. 

Their report also touches on councillors’ behaviour and concluded that “action is needed to recalibrate member roles, behaviours and conduct” 

“The new opposition should be supported to ensure that their role and function is conducted in line with the Code of Conduct.” 

The report also looks at income received from its arm’s length development company This Land Ltd. 

“Peers concur with the intention of the council to appoint an independent advisor to undertake a detailed review of the company’s progress, long-term risk, plans and finances,” it says.  

The report considers farmgate and the efforts made to prevent anything similar happening again where, in this instance, a farm tenancy was awarded to a senior councillor. 

Noting what has happened since, the peer group says it is vital lessons are learned for many reasons including to “reassure the public that the council maintains high standards”. 

On governance and culture, the report says there are “positive early signs that the joint administration is working collaborative. 

“There is a strong willingness to work together and create strategic plans to deliver against the future challenges and political ambition”.  

It says the Conservative opposition has an “excellent understanding” of how the council works and their knowledge and experience has the potential to “contribute greatly” to the role of scrutiny. 

"As part of the political transition arrangements the new opposition should be supported to ensure that their role and function is conducted in line with the Code of Conduct,” says the report. 

And there needs to be “a clear understanding developed of all statutory roles including the specific role and statutory function of the monitoring officer.  

“Within the new opposition, appropriate behaviours must be recalibrated and respect for officer roles actively demonstrated,” 

The report says the peer group was informed of poor councillor behaviour, as well as observing “inappropriate behaviour” from the opposition at a council meeting. 

That behaviour was particularly aimed towards the monitoring officer “who was unable to speak and perform their role during the meeting.  

“All councillors require an appropriate understanding of officer roles and appropriate behaviours. 

“As such this should be made clear to the opposition, new members of the new administration and all chairs” 

The peer group put forward 11 recommendations for further consideration, and the council says several of these are already being acted upon. 

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha said: “I am pleased that experienced and cross-party peers could tell in just two months of the joint administration, that we were already taking positive steps to meeting the challenges that face us.” 

She added: “In relation to our shared service arrangement with Peterborough we have always been clear that where these services are helping to deliver strong outcomes for residents and communities, or resilience for the councils, they will continue to be an option.  

“We want an opportunity to look at them carefully."  

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