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Opinion: Focus shifts to Kent County Council’s financial struggles after Birmingham authority declares bankruptcy

Last year, Kent County Council leader Roger Gough and the leader of Hampshire County Council sent a joint letter to the Prime Minister warning that their financial prospects were decidedly grim.

It could not have been a starker or more direct warning, leaving anyone who read it in little doubt that their respective budgets were on course for a nasty crash.

Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics
Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics

Of particular note was a passage in the letter that said if the councils did not get more money for essential services, they would have to issue what is known as a Section 114 notice.

It sounds bureaucratic and in a sense it is but it has until the last year or so not been common for councils to be quite as blunt and direct.

A Section 114 notice is so feared by council leaders that in town halls and offices, uttering the words has become a bit like risking fearful consequences when actors forget to refer not to Macbeth but to “the Scottish play”.

But the two leaders decided not to pussy-foot around the issue and instead warned there would come a time that unless something changed, they would both be forced to declare bankruptcy.

Kent County Council (KCC) has previously issued warnings about its financial state
Kent County Council (KCC) has previously issued warnings about its financial state

In a graphic passage, the letter warned they were sleepwalking to disaster, saying: “We believe that our common experience demonstrates that this is not an issue that can be resolved by one-off handouts that will keep the sector limping along; that offers only a recurring cycle of service cuts, and even that looks impossible to deliver beyond the shortest of horizons. Fundamental changes to the funding or expectations - or both – of local government are needed.”

Yes, that’s right: Conservative council leaders were on the offensive against their own party in government.

But following these dark and sombre threats, there was a period of rather more calm - at least in public.

Councils are struggling to balance the books
Councils are struggling to balance the books

When Birmingham City Council announced it was declaring bankruptcy last week, it was inevitable that the focus would switch to Kent County Council.

The two authorities are the biggest in the country by both population and geography, so it should not have come as a surprise. You can’t pick and choose the moment to go on the offensive, especially on an issue like funding or lack of funding.

KCC should be shouting from the rooftops about their plight but they have gone back into their shell, possibly awaiting what the Autumn budget may bring.

Any optimism on that front may well be misplaced.

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