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Chief Executive’s address to Council

Released on July 24, 2020

On Wedesday 15 July Mark Stone, Chief Executive at South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils, made the following address to all Vale councillors during their full meeting of the District Council:

Thank you Chair,

It is unusual for me to address Council in this way, but the Chair and Leader have suggested that I provide a brief update on two areas and I am happy to do so.

However, I would first like to thank Councillors, on behalf of all our staff, for your support, consideration and kindness since COVID19 turned all our lives upside down. 

The virus is still active and its impact on the daily workload of many staff is still significant, but we are down from a peak when in addition to staff all across our Housing and Environment services,  we had well over 100 staff working specifically on COVID19 related activities across the Vale and South Oxfordshire.  The impact on other work and priorities could not have been managed without huge adjustments to our priorities and ways of working.   Indeed, the pressures on our staff currently remain significant, with many at all levels within the structure still working unsustainable hours.

However, each and every time we have sought staff feedback throughout this period, the support and understanding of councillors, and the difference that has made, has been specifically raised by staff from across the Councils – so from all of the officers, can I express a sincere thank you to all of you for your ongoing support.

I would also like to briefly mention finances – like all Councils, COVID19 has increased the financial pressure on Vale of White Horse District Council and whilst the financial support packages from Government are welcome, they do not cover all our increased costs or all our lost income.  It also remains unclear if future funding will recognise the additional cost pressures that are inevitable as the long term economic impact of COVID19 is felt across our communities and by our businesses.

The Section 151 Officer will therefore be working with the Cabinet Member for Finance to bring forward an in year budget, which will come before you all in October.  This approach will not only address the current financial pressures we face as a Council but will also ensure that our overall expenditure levels remain as directed by Council and are transparent to residents. 

Finally, as part of Oxfordshire’s Recovery work programme, which is led countywide by OxLEP at the request of Government, all Councils and OxLEP have jointly engaged with officials of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy regarding new long term priorities and the delivery of the existing Housing and Growth Deal, which has been impacted by COVID19.  During these discussions, it became clear that in return for additional funding and greater flexibility to support a green recovery, Government were interested in hearing Oxfordshire’s collective thoughts on what changes to decision making and governance models would best underpin recovery.

This led to a meeting occurring between the Leaders of all of Oxfordshire’s principle Councils, the Chair of OxLEP (supported by their Chief Executives), and senior officials from MHCLG and BEIS.  This meeting occurred on the 30 June and was initially intended to focus on possible options relating to enhancing the role of the Growth Board. 

However, during this meeting it became clear that the planned Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper could have a significant impact on these discussions and that the potential for wider structural change, such as Unitary models or larger scale Mayoral Combined Authorities, which may be being considered by Government, needed to be better understood with greater certainty by the Leaders and OxLEP Chair.   It was therefore agreed by all of those attending that a direct meeting with the relevant Secretary of State and/or Minister would be beneficial.

Consequently, a joint letter from all Council Leaders and the OxLEP Chair requesting such a meeting was sent on 7 July to both the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

The letter stated:

“We write as the Leaders of Oxfordshire’s Principal Councils and the Chair of OxLEP. We would welcome a meeting with yourselves; at your earliest convenience, to better understand the options available to Oxfordshire in light of the pending Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper.

As an established and mature system we are working very closely together in order to support our communities and drive the economic recovery of our geography. Our response to COVID19 has further enhanced this partnership approach and we would welcome the opportunity to explore options that would further benefit our residents and businesses.”

A response is still awaited, but I understand from officials that the requested meeting will be welcomed and will be readily agreed to.