New Oxfordshire County Council scrutiny panel reveals aims

The need for earlier access to information, following up on recommendations and greater public involvement were the key improvements highlighted by Oxfordshire County Council’s new scrutiny panel.

By Andy Mitchell, Local Democracy Reporter
Friday, 8th October 2021, 4:50 pm

The inaugural meeting of the Performance & Corporate Services Overview & Scrutiny Committee saw Cllr Eddie Reeves (Con, Banbury Calthorpe) voted in as chair and Cllr Michael O’Connor (Lab, University Parks) as vice-chair. Its aim is to refresh the challenge to decision makers on how the council’s plans are implemented.

There was debate about how far reaching the scope of the committee could be and the need to avoid overlapping with work already done by the council’s Audit & Governance Committee.

The four areas which all members agreed would be covered by the new group were the budget scrutiny process, overseeing the county’s £1billion capital programme, transformation programmes which involve “service redesigns and plans for the future” and assessing work towards the council’s overall objectives.

Cllr Eddie Reeves (Con, Banbury Calthorpe) voted in as chair of the Performance & Corporate Services Overview & Scrutiny Committee for Oxfordshire County Council

Procurement, tendering and contract management - how the council goes about enlisting external services - is currently under review by Audit & Governance.

The report that preceded the meeting advocated constructive challenges led by evidence, taking the time to conduct deeper investigations into “limited number of items” and a focus on matters important to the public.

Cllr Andrew Gant (Lib Dem, Wolvercote and Summertown), who chaired the scrutiny committee at Oxford City Council for five years, said: “It is very helpful when reports for scrutiny can be published with the agenda a week in advance. Officers can then take it as read that members have read and absorbed the report and don’t have to waste time presenting them.”

He added: “One of the key functions of scrutiny is to engage with the public. How we do that and how we reach a wide range of people is a key challenge for us.”

Oxfordshire County Council

Cllr Ian Corkin (Con, Ploughley): “One of the pieces of work should be about how we communicate the work of these committees to the outside world and how we make them relevant so people can access them and contribute to the ongoing work programme.”

Cllr Ian Middleton (Green, Kidlington South) said: “I recently looked at the 2050 Plan which is a 3,000-page document and we had a week to read it.

"I worked out that if I read 200 pages per day, it would still take a month to read so we need to be aware of the workload if we genuinely want those issues scrutinised.”

Cllr Middleton added that scrutiny has been “variable in its impact” in the past with “not very much in the way of follow up”. “We don’t tend to monitor where comments go or whether those points have been acted on,” he added.

Cllr Damian Haywood (Lab, Iffley Fields & St Mary’s) raised concerns about heightened public expectations around the new committee.

“The public think scrutiny will achieve many things, they need to know where we draw the line with what we can actually do,” he said.

“We don’t have the authority to cancel (decisions). I put out on social media about the function of scrutiny… and it was very clear they have high expectations of us. My concern is that we are not going to deliver on that and it is about managing that and communicating what we are doing and how we are doing it.”