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VIRTUAL MEETING WITH THE MINISTER - AT THE SECOND ATTEMPT

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Oxfordshire CC's attempts to take the government at its word by using the latest technology to put its case for a b...
Oxfordshire CC's attempts to take the government at its word by using the latest technology to put its case for a better funding settlement to local government minister Hilary Armstrong has succeeded - at the second attempt.

The first meeting, which was scheduled for last week, failed after Whitehall's state of the art video conferencing system failed to connect with Oxfordshire at the last minute. On Monday no-one was taking any chances and the lines between Oxford and Westminster were opened and tested repeatedly before business began.

From her London office the minister told the Oxfordshire delegates, who were linked up at Oxford's County Hall, that she welcomed Oxfordshire taking the video conferencing initiative. 'We are trying to make the point that new technology should be there for all to use.... I do believe that it will show the taxpayer that we're not spending money that we don't have to.'

Traditionally, when local government has sought discussions with central government it has meant a trip to Westminster, and Oxfordshire wanted a meeting with the minister to discuss the county's£10m funding shortfall.

The council suggested that rather than spend scarce resources by sending a party to London, perhaps the minister would be able to break tradition by conducting the meeting by video link. Oxfordshire has eight sites capable of using video conferencing technology as part of its plans for dealing with a major civil emergency. After a hunt for similar technology in Whitehall, the minister agreed and on the second attempt, a 'virtual meeting' took place, with the minister's team and a cross party group of Oxfordshire's MPs at the London end and representatives of the Oxfordshire political groups plus council chief executive John Harwood and treasurer Chris Gray at the other.

Hilary Armstrong heard pleas for a more generous settlement for Oxfordshire from all the parties and promised that she would consider them fully.

After the meeting, views were mixed about the attractions for video conferencing over conducting meetings face to face. The Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green groups felt there were drawbacks to taking through a screen but felt that the time and costs saved by not travelling to London were a welcome benefit. But Conservative group leader Charles Shouler gave it the thumbs down saying he would always sooner meet the minister in person.

John Harwood said: 'Oxfordshire prides itself on being innovative in finding ways to do things more economically. We have to be. I hope that by showing ministers that we are already doing everything we can to be efficient - in this case by harnessing new technology to save the time and expense of a trip to London - they will appreciate that when we talk about a funding crisis in Oxfordshire, that funding crisis is genuine.'

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