Plan to continue and develop ‘ground-breaking’ council partnership

The district and county councils plan to continue their ‘ground-breaking’ new partnership and look at ways to work even closer over the coming.

Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire County Council set up a joint working partnership in October – one of a very small number of different tier councils sharing staff and services in the UK.

Cherwell District Council's headquarters at Bodicote House

Cherwell District Council's headquarters at Bodicote House

They share a chief executive and a handful of other senior officers to reduce management costs while staff can work at each other’s offices in Oxford and Bodicote.

The county council’s cabinet will be asked to approve the continuation of the partnership at its meeting next Monday (April 23).

Assistant chief executive Claire Taylor said: “It’s fair to say that the ambition and extent of our joint working is genuinely breaking new ground.

“There are very few examples of a district and a county council working together and none to the degree that we are.

“People in central and local government throughout the country are monitoring how our project is developing.”

Business cases are being developed for sharing services in law and governance, finance, HR, communications, policy, consultation, research and business intelligence and regulatory services, such as trading standards and community safety, and public protection such as fire and rescue and emergency planning.

The councils are at the early stages of looking at how services might collaborate and align in areas such as IT, children’s social care and housing.

Ms Taylor added: “Cherwell District Council has a track record for innovation in housing and regeneration and Oxfordshire County Council has a proven history of attracting infrastructure funding linked to housing to improve our transport network and other essential public services.

“Our ambition is to maximise those skills, resources and national funding to make the housing and economic growth planned for our county work to the benefit of everyone in our towns and villages.

“The way we manage this growth can only benefit from ever closer working between our two councils and act as a way of piloting and developing new approaches between counties and districts both here in Oxfordshire and elsewhere in England.

“Ever closer working will also save money as well as providing more joined up services for our residents.”

The partnership was borne out of Cherwell’s previous deal with South Northamptonshire Council having to be scrapped in the wake of Northamptonshire County Council’s financial crisis last year.

The plan to turn Northamptonshire’s councils into two unitary bodies meant Cherwell had to find a new partner to plug a £2m shortfall.

Having previously clashed over its own bid for unitary authorities, Cherwell joined up with Oxfordshire County Council, starting with a shared chief executive, Yvonne Rees.

Labour group leader at Cherwell, Sean Woodcock, said: “Our view on joint-working has been consistent throughout; that any changes should improve services, protect staff as well as bring financial savings.

“While we supported the initial proposal for joint working between these two councils following the end of joint-working with South Northants due to there being a financial imperative, we are increasingly concerned that the focus of officers at Bodicote House will be towards the larger authority at County Hall and away from residents in Cherwell.”

They now share an assistant director for regulatory services and public protection, an assistant director to lead housing and commissioning, a lead officer for HR, a director for law and governance and an assistant chief executive.

Ms Taylor said: “Undoubtedly these are fascinating times as we chart a way forward and break new ground with a project that has a real national significance.

“Many parts of England retain a two-tier structure of local government with district and county councils. Districts are close to communities and able to respond and focus at a very local level.

“Meanwhile county councils deliver strategic services on a larger scale - such as social care, highways and trading standards.

“There is huge potential in combining these two different approaches into a closer partnership and we believe the results will be powerful.

“Our ambition is to trigger a broader conversation throughout the country - via our own example here in Oxfordshire - about how the councils and other public bodies can work better together.

“We all face the same challenges and we serve the same residents - so collaboration makes good sense.

“It is our experience so far is that real tangible improvements can be delivered to the benefit of our residents, both as taxpayers and service-users.”