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County and district push ahead with 'non-structural reform'

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A county and district council are set to press ahead with further joint working in a move they hope will “trigger a broader conversation” nationally about how councils can work better together in two-tier areas.

Oxfordshire CC and Cherwell DC have been sharing chief executive Yvonne Rees since October. Since then they have made five other shared senior appointments which a report due to be discussed by the county’s cabinet next week said was forecast to save each council just over £300,000 in 2019-20.

The report, which was approved by Cherwell’s cabinet last week, seeks councillor approval to expand the arrangements beginning with the development of business cases for law and governance, finance, HR, communications, policy, consultation, research and business intelligence, regulatory services and public protection.

The councils are also at the early stages of looking at how services such as ICT, children’s social care and housing might align more closely.

The report said the councils’ approach was “beginning to be referred to as non-structural reform”.

It continued: “This type of reform aims to ensure that services are designed around people, communities and places rather than organisational boundaries, seeking to ensure operational efficiencies, but more fundamentally a better service experience for local communities.”

Other district and county joint working arrangements were highlighted in the report, such as between Selby DC and North Yorkshire CC, which share a number of senior posts, saving £1.5m over three years.

However, Claire Taylor, assistant chief executive at the two councils, said none were working together to the same degree as Oxfordshire and Cherwell.

She added: “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.”

The debate over local government reorganisation in Oxfordshire has been heated in recent years, with the districts and county publishing competing proposals. However, since the agreement of a housing and growth deal with government in 2017 discussion on restructuring has gone on the backburner.

The report said the development of the partnership with Cherwell represented an opportunity “to reset the tone of county and district collaboration in Oxfordshire” and to “explore how vertical joint working… could successfully deliver operational efficiencies”.

The partnership arrangements are set out in an agreement under section 113 of the Local Government Act 1972 which enables officers from each authority to operate for the other in any post or service area.

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