Cash-strapped council says up to 2,000 cases involving older and disabled people are unassigned

Care services for older and disabled adults are on the verge of being unsafe in Northamptonshire, the crisis-ridden county council has said, with as many as 2,000 cases unassigned because of major budget cuts.

The Tory-run council, which declared it was close to effective bankruptcy earlier this month, was given the prognosis by senior officials as it sought to agree a additional £10m cuts programme that would include the closure of 21 of its 36 libraries.

It came just days after a warning from the council’s auditor that its existing plans to reduce services would deliver insufficient savings to enable it to set a legal budget for 2018-19.

Northamptonshire’s adult social care services were on the point of intervention, the officials said on Tuesday, in comments reported by the BBC. The officials added that the service had the lowest staffing levels in England.

The stark warning, from the council’s director of adult services, Anna Earnshaw, highlights the ongoing crisis in adult social care funding faced by English local authorities. In a statement, the council called for “meaningful investment” from central government to make social care services financially sustainable.

The council later explained that its staff were working through 2,000 referrals and requests for assessment or reassessment involving vulnerable elderly and disabled adults in the face of fast-growing demand for care. Its over-65s population was growing faster than any other county in the country and would increase by 28% by 2024. The numbers of younger adults and costs of their care were also rising.

“Despite the levels of demand and the rising cost of providing care, our adult social services is one of the lowest funded of any county council and has one of the lowest staff bases. We have a legal duty to meet people’s needs after an assessment and will continue to do so, but additional funding from central government is urgently required to make the service more sustainable.

“The recently announced adult social care grant in the local government settlement will generate just £1.7m for Northamptonshire, which has little impact given the size of our challenge. What we need is meaningful investment from government to create the capacity and capability to reform and transform adult social care into a sustainable service and invest in and develop our staff.”

The council, which is proposing to end subsidies to rural bus services, freeze staff pay and ban all new spending until further notice, warned it will be the first of many local authorities forced to take such difficult decisions.

It said the “severe and unprecedented” financial challenges it faced as a result of years of funding reductions from central government made it inevitable that it would have to push ahead with unpopular cuts to services.

It is expected to reverse a decision taken last month to soften cuts in response to public opposition. This means it will also impose a 40% cut to trading standards services, and reduce road repairs.

Opposition parties said the latest round of cuts reduces the council to a skeleton operation, able to support little more than the most basic services to vulnerable adults and children.

Mick Scrimshaw, Labour’s shadow finance portfolio holder at the county council, said the revised budget was a short-term fix that wouldn’t solve the ongoing problems of financial mismanagement but would result in “more and more desperate cuts”.

Although the cuts are likely to trigger anger, the council said it had no choice but to reconsider cuts it had previously rejected or considered undesirable if it were to meet its legal obligations to set a balanced budget.

It said there were no guarantees that even these cuts would put the council’s finances on a sustainable footing, and it may have to make further saving in a few months’ time. The council’s cabinet member for finance, Robin Brown, said the council was in danger of “going over a cliff”.

In a formal note to the council leadership, its director of finance, Mark McLaughlin, , said: “Northamptonshire is on the leading edge of a set of extremely difficult decisions that will face all top-tier local authorities.

“Funding is declining at the same time as need and costs are rising and this means that county councils will be seen by their residents to withdraw from services aimed at the population as a whole in favour of the services required by those most in need.”

The cuts include:

  • The closure of 21 of 36 libraries, just weeks after a public campaign forced the council to abandon plans to close 28 of them.
  • A 42% reduction in trading standards services, a £500,000 cut in skills and jobs funding for vulnerable teenagers, and a £600,000 cut in grants to local charities.
  • The removal of a proposed 2% pay rise for staff, despite warnings that this would make it harder to recruit and retain key care workers.

Northamptonshire’s leader, Heather Smith, has blamed government underfunding for its dire financial predicament, though some Conservative backbenchers and local MPs have accused her and her predecessors of poor leadership, and have threatened Smith with a vote of no confidence.

A government-appointed inspector has been at the council since January investigating alleged failings in governance and financial management. His report is expected in March.

A full council meeting will be held on Wednesday to approve the budget.

A meeting of Tory backbench councillors passed a vote of no confidence in council leader Heather Smith on Tuesday night. This means she is no longer leader of the Conservative group, but for now will continue as leader of the council.

Backbencher Jonathan Ekins, told the Guardian the vote signalled that a “new wind was blowing” through the council. He promised that although Conservative councillors would vote to pass the cuts budget they would seek extra government funding to reverse planned reductions to libraries and rural bus routes.

He said: “If we can go to government and get more funding, who is to say we can’t get these services back. Nobody wants to cut libraries, or make redundancies. We are not living in the dark ages. We want to provide services.”

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