Oxfordshire County Council and Cherwell District Council merged a host of operational posts, including the senior roles of chief executive, director of finance and monitoring officer, in a bid to cut costs in September 2018.
Less than three-and-a-half years later the arrangements are set to be pulled apart with one of the burning questions for councillors on both sides of the fence – and the public – is how much it will suck out of the public purse, particularly at a time when council budgets are being squeezed.
But senior management that currently represent both authorities told the Joint Shared Services & Personnel Committee, a group of Oxfordshire and Cherwell councillors, there would be no swift answer.
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Part of the “due diligence” set to take place will set out the financial implications for each element ahead of councillors deciding how individual services will look in the future.
Anita Bradley, director of law and governance and monitoring officer, said: “It will be necessary to review the costs of officer staffing, service provision, officer-sharing contracts, assets, liabilities, any contracts entered into jointly, all of that will need to be worked through so when you do take a decision, you have all the necessary information in front of you.”
She added that the separation “is not a bar on sharing services moving forward but it is for members to decide how that is best done”.
Director of finance Lorna Baxter added: “There is the separation of the costs in the settlement (break-up) agreement and then both councils setting out a new structure that would be put in place on a permanent basis.
“There are two distinct elements there, both of which cannot be quantified at this stage until the due diligence process is undertaken to determine what the costs are and how they are apportioned.
“That will need to be worked through for each individual element to determine how that will be dealt with moving forward, whether it is a termination, a continuation, to work out what the settlement will be.”
Asked for timescales on the overall financial burden, Anita Bradley replied: “I go back to the fact the date in there is August 31 but the caveat I gave is that it is going to take longer in reality.
“I couldn’t commit to a date at this point. What you are undertaking is to do everything as soon as is practical in an orderly fashion and to have a coherent order in which things are done.
“It will be different for different services.”
Councillor Ian Middleton, a Green Party member of both councils, questioned the part of the report that said any costs of the split in the financial year 2022-23 would come from back-up funds rather than any adjustment to budgets.
He asked: “Given that we don’t know what the costs are and contingency budgets tend to be constructed around known uncertainties, there is a view taken on what they are likely to cover, are we certain that contingency budgets are sufficient to cover this?”
Lorna Baxter replied: “I think we could say reasonable provision has been made within the contingency budgets of both councils to pick up costs in 2022-23.
“We can’t quantify what they are but given the scale of the arrangements, my feeling in coming up with contingency figures is that they should be in reasonable proportion to deal with costs.”