A local government expert has warned Kent is heading for bankruptcy if it cannot close its budget gap.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the not-for-profit, non-political Local Government Information Unit, says the council is one of up to 20 in the UK facing the same fate.
Dr Carr-West said he is “baffled” by central government’s attitude towards struggling councils that cannot balance the books because of a squeeze on budgets and soaring costs.
As a “perfectly well-run” authority, Kent County Council (KCC) appealing to Whitehall for assistance makes the overall picture “concerning”.
He said KCC will face its greatest challenge next year when it faces a funding shortfall of £86m.
If it is unable to find the savings, KCC, like many other authorities, faces having to issue a section 114 notice – an admission it cannot pay for its statutory services and will be run by government-appointed commissioners instead.
Dr Carr-West said: “KCC has been quite clear that if nothing changes and it is not able to close its budget gap, it will be looking at issuing a section 114 – not this year but next year. So that's its own assessment and I see no reason to doubt that.”
He said KCC had not made the sort of errors that saw Birmingham and Woking councils go bust.
Kent and Hampshire recently joined forces to appeal to the Secretary of State for help in dealing with the rising cost of its legal obligations to services like adult social care.
Dr Carr-West added: “In any local authority, you can point to things which could have been done better but [Kent] is a large local authority, it has a very professional staff, quite dedicated councillors with a massive population.
“If we have created a system where only a local authority which has never got anything wrong can survive then we have got the wrong system.
“I am sure there are things that have happened in Kent it would do differently if it was to do them again. All the assessments suggest it is a perfectly normal, well-run council…there’s nothing about Kent that stands out.
“And that is why [KCC] ringing alarm bells is concerning.”
Many observers ask why central government appears not to be listening to the plight of local councils.
Dr Carr-West: “I don't know the answer to that question. And that is why somewhere like Kent is really interesting because if the government is not listening to Kent County Council, who on earth are they listening to?
“I can understand why the government doesn’t listen, or pretends not to listen, to Birmingham or Manchester or Newcastle or Liverpool or other Labour-run authorities.
“But they are not listening to Kent or Hampshire or Surrey – massive, true blue Conservative authorities for ever and a day (half the cabinet have seats in these places)...it just seems truly baffling that they wouldn’t pay more attention.”
Asked if Westminster is setting up local government to fail, Dr Carr-West said: “I don’t think it wants it to fail but I don’t think it cares enough about it succeeding to stop it failing.
“I just think they have other fish to fry and are distracted and looking elsewhere. I don’t think they’ll do anything until they’re past the next election.”
KCC looks after vital services such as roads, schools, vulnerable children and adults but has been forced to dip into its reserves to meet the gap between revenues it gets from the government and the cost of providing services.
A recent report to county councillors stated: "At this stage, the administration’s initial draft budget for 2024-25 and medium term financial plane (MTFP) 2024-27 is unbalanced with budget gaps..."
Council chiefs, including leader Cllr Roger Gough, say it has been left “weakened significantly” by drawing on its savings and must replenish them.
In the meantime, the KCC is examining every area of its “discretionary” spending for cuts and efficiencies.