Opposition leaders turn on Tories over councils' 'divorce'. Cost of failed 'back of envelope' plan for Banbury and Oxfordshire is not disclosed

A cost-cutting marriage between Cherwell District Council (CDC) and Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) is ending in divorce - because of differing demands on officers.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 1st February 2022, 11:24 am
Updated Wednesday, 2nd February 2022, 12:15 pm
Ian Middleton, OCC/CDC Green councillor for Kidlington South and Kidlington East
Ian Middleton, OCC/CDC Green councillor for Kidlington South and Kidlington East

And members of the opposition parties have criticised Conservative leaders for the failed enterprise. The councils' joint press office has told the Banbury Guardian the cost of the short-lived merger 'will be discussed over the coming months'.

Greens councillor Ian Middleton said he was shocked at 'how little thought appears to have been given to the way the arrangement would operate'. He described the plan's design as 'careless and lacking in professionalism'.

And Labour leader Sean Woodcock said Cherwell was 'fast running out' of councils to work alongside.

Cllr Sean Woodcock, leader of the Labour group on Cherwell District Council

The partnership between the two authorities three years ago was meant to save on both sides. Some saw it as a 'first shot' at Oxfordshire becoming a unitary authority.

However in practice it appears the county has had little or no control over shared staff who were under contract to CDC.

Staff on both councils had to be prioritised for work at top tier level and Cherwell found itself being expected to pay a premium for those with more experience than may be necessary at district level.

The two councils have now entered a separation process which will force a financial reckoning. The Banbury Guardian understands this will not impact on council budgets this year but may do in subsequent years.

The councils - which have shared a press office - did not answer the Banbury Guardian's questions about how much the separation will cost, how many roles had been combined, what they were and how long the dismantling process will take.

Additionally the press office did not respond to the question over whether the areas of difficulty might had been anticipated before the partnership was entered into.

Ian Middleton, (Green) county councillor for Kidlington South and district councillor Kidlington East, said: "I must admit to some shock about how little thought appears to have been given to the way the arrangement would operate in the longer term.

"There seems to have been no service level agreements included and no shared contractual obligations over notice periods or other responsibilities. I understand the shared officers were directly employed by CDC and essentially loaned to OCC in a rather ad hoc manner.

"This has now left OCC without a CEO at very short notice and may result in the loss of other senior officers in the future. The way this agreement was overseen by the two Conservative leaders of both authorities at the time beggars belief. It seems to have been back of an envelope stuff with staff being swapped around like baseball cards. I only hope that we can limit the impact that their carelessness and lack of professionalism may have on local services," he said.

"As a county councillor I am also keen to ensure this situation does not distract OCC from the important work we have to do to turn it into a modern authority after years of mismanagement by the previous administrations."

The separation process will begin on February 8 and is likely to take some time, as a new CEO for the county will have to be recruited. In the meantime an interim CEO will be appointed.

Sean Woodcock, leader of the Labour group on Cherwell said: "We will vote for this as if the relationship is not working there is no point continuing.

"But you have to wonder why, once again, Cherwell taxpayers are footing the bill for the Conservatives who run the council and their inability to carry out successful joint-working.

"First Stratford-on-Avon, then South Northants and now Oxfordshire County. They're fast running out of local authorities to work with."

In an official statement the joint councils said: "OCC and CDC are in discussions to bring their formal partnership arrangements to an end. The arrangement between the two councils, which has taken the form of joint services under a single chief executive, has been in place since September 2018.

"The ending of the partnership would mean that joint chief executive, Yvonne Rees, will return to her substantive post as CEO for CDC from the date of both full council decisions. Recruitment will take place for the post of chief executive for OCC. The intention is that joint services would remain in place while new arrangements are finalised."

Leader of Cherwell District Council Cllr Barry Wood said: “The partnership has served the councils and our residents very well for the past three years and enabled us to deliver high-quality cost-effective services. But it is now time for us to explore other opportunities. Our focus will remain on delivering high-standard services for all our residents and communities and we will continue to work closely with all our local authority partners in Oxfordshire to do so.”

Leader of Oxfordshire County Council Cllr Liz Leffman said: “During the pandemic, we have worked very closely with all our local authority partners to support our most vulnerable residents and deliver much-needed services. What we want to do now is to capitalise on this and focus on the opportunities that broader partnership working gives us so that we can best serve the residents of Oxfordshire.”