Good-bye, or is it au revoir?

by Stephen Tall on April 25, 2007

All good things must, so the cliché tells us, come to an end. And so it is with my year’s tenure on Oxford City Council’s Executive Board – what some places, with more pretensions to grandeur than us, call a cabinet – as portfolio holder for Better Finances.

I decided way back in October last year that, if the Lib Dems continue to run the City Council as a minority administration, I would step down from the post this coming May. It’s been a hugely rewarding 12 months, but, to be honest, also a knackering one. Combining a busy, full-time job with being responsible for the setting and delivery of the City’s £70m net spending budget (let alone being a local councillor) is not a recipe for a good work-life balance. I doff my cap to those who do achieve it.

Looking back over the last year, I am quietly and moderately pleased with what has so far been achieved by the Lib Dem administration, working together with Council officers, and frequently with the opposition Labour and Green groups too. In my own area, Better Finances, we have, for example:

1. Met our manifesto pledge to keep Council Tax down, setting a below-inflation 3% rise for the coming year, and proposing 2% only rises for the next two years;
2. Set a budget which made £4m of savings with no cuts to key front-line services, despite having to write-off £2m of savings clocked-up by Labour which had proved completely undeliverable;
3. Transformed the collection of Council Tax – 96.3% was collected in 2006-07, compared to last year’s pretty dismal 94.8% under Labour, making it Oxford’s most successful ever year;
4. Seen the whole Revenues and Benefits team’s performance improve markedly, reducing the Council’s ‘local cost of benefits’ from £500k to zero in a year, and ensuring benefits are paid in the fastest time ever;
5. Put in place, for the first time, a comprehensive IT strategy for the City Council, promising to invest £500k in the Council’s technology year-on-year in order to improve services;
6. Continued to smarten-up the Council’s procurement, with the Facilities Management team short-listed for the LGC’s sustainable communities award for encouraging local businesses and the not-for-profit sector to apply for contract opportunities with the Council and other local public bodies;
7. Improved Council target-setting, ensuring the targets set by Council officers are, at long last, all of the following: robust, stretching and achievable;
8. Improved the Council’s ‘use of resources’ score – the value-for-money it’s giving to its citizens – as assessed by the Audit Commission, from 1 to 2 (out of 4).

Anything left to do? Just a little:

1. The Council’s capital programme is still unrealistic and over-stretched, and too little progress has yet been made to make inroads into the £9m maintenance backlog carelessly built-up under Labour;
2. Value-for-money remains under-developed, though is now heading in the right direction, as publicly noted by the District Auditor;
3. And we have yet to introduce properly devolved budgets to the City’s six area committees, though there should be concrete proposals coming forward on this very shortly;
4. Oh, and there’s the little matter of trying to set a budget next year without a majority in Council.

A part of me would love to spend the next year getting to grips with these challenges, and ensuring the continuing improvement of the Council’s finances. But a larger part of me is looking forward to having more time to get back to the role of being a councillor I really love: working and campaigning in my ward.

That, and to having a little bit more of a life.