Both Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire County Council agreed to the principle of joint-working yesterday (Monday, June 4), after a partnership which saved millions of pounds was scrapped.
The two councils are considering a proposal for shared service arrangements under a joint chief executive, while retaining separate councillor bodies, budgets and decision-making processes.
Cherwell decided to end its seven-year partnership with South Northamptonshire Council, which saved around £3.5m, over plans to form unitary authorities in Northamptonshire.
Cherwell council leader Cllr Barry Wood said: “This is a great opportunity to explore closer joint working with Oxfordshire County Council, putting our residents at the heart of service delivery.
“In Cherwell we already have a very successful track record of partnership working and welcome the possibility of a strong and innovative relationship with colleagues at the county.
“In line with our ethos we will consider all partnerships that fit with our culture. In short, we do not and will not, operate a ‘one size fits all policy’ – but take individual decisions based on customer need and evidence.”
Joint working arrangements were formally agreed under what is known as a Section 113 agreement by the councils’ cabinets.
While the two councils serve separate purposes in the two-tier system, officers outlined a number of ways efficiencies could be made by working together, particularly in waste and highways maintenance.
The exact arrangements for sharing services and joining up functions will need to be worked out in detail and then agreed separately by each council.
The shared service arrangements would be implemented incrementally so that day-to-day services are not affected and new ways of working identified, a spokesman said.
It is a statutory requirement that the chief executive, as head of paid service, is appointed by the full councils of each council and formal appointment processes will be followed.
Peter Clark, chief executive of Oxfordshire County Council, has said he would step down if and when the joint working arrangement was agreed.
County council leader Ian Hudspeth said: “We are keen to work with Cherwell to ensure its residents continue to receive good services.
“The county council also believes a joint arrangement would help to secure investment in the infrastructure needed to support increases in jobs and homes.
“The problems in Northamptonshire have created this unique opportunity for a county-district shared service arrangement.
“I am confident that if we can reach an agreement that would be good for Cherwell and good for the rest of Oxfordshire.”
Northamptonshire County Council’s financial collapse sparked government intervention and the secretary of state is looking at making the county into two unitary authorities, spelling the end of Cherwell and South Northants’ partnership.
Officers believe there would be a funding shortfall of £2m if it went alone, meaning services would have to be cut to find the extra money.
Other councils available for a partnership are ‘limited’, with Buckinghamshire also potentially becoming a unitary authority, and the other Oxfordshire districts are already in partnerships.
The officers believe Oxfordshire County Council ‘provides the greatest balance of the need for financial sustainability, philosophical alignment, the requirement for Cherwell to maintain control and its identity plus political independence’.
Cllr Wood added: “We know from our work with South Northamptonshire Council over the past seven years that closer working between authorities benefits residents and encourages the sharing of best practice.
“Unfortunately, with the changes likely in Northamptonshire, we can no longer continue the partnership with South Northamptonshire Council, so need to explore other options.
“Whilst we are sad to be parting from South Northamptonshire, we are excited about the opportunities that will be created through joint working with Oxfordshire County Council.
“These proposals will enable each council to retain its own identity and enable us to align operations across both authorities to ensure joined-up service delivery for everyone in Cherwell.”
A council spokesman said the proposed partnership is not connected to unitary reorganisation proposals, and would instead offer an innovative opportunity to make two-tier local government more effective.
Following yesterday’s decisions, the proposals will now be discussed at the full council meetings of both authorities in July.