And that connectivity also covers superfast broadband: 96% of residents and businesses now have access to superfast broadband, thanks the work of our partnership with BT and BDUK (Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport).
Oxfordshire County Council Leader, Ian Hudspeth, met with B4’s Richard Rosser to explain how Oxfordshire’s partnership approach is reaping rewards for the county as a whole and why it’s important to grow.
B4: Good morning Ian – thank you for joining B4. We’re sat in the Bicester (Oxfordshire County Council) Library and what a fantastic space it is. The staff here have been saying how popular it’s becoming with increasing footfall from all generations, which is good to hear.
Before we met today, I was looking at the Thriving Communities for Everyone Corporate Plan in which you set out how you are listening to the residents of Oxfordshire. Obviously as a County Council you have increasing challenges, but do you feel that the enormity of what you have to do is appreciated by the local residents and that they are listening to what challenges you have to face and that, in turn, you are listening to what they want?
Ian: As you say, sitting here in Bicester Library, the great thing about this is it shows a partnership working with Cherwell District Council whose offices are downstairs. We have even built some extra care housing in the old library, so it’s about creating different aspects for Bicester and regenerating it for Cherwell. So we are working in partnership and this is a great example of an excellent partnership agreement.
The Thriving Communities Plan is really important to us and we have to make sure that residents feel part of the thriving community so they have better housing opportunities, better job prospects and, of course, one of the key things about this whole journey is to give everyone the best opportunities that we can.
This is all very well to say but how does this sit against the backdrop of the funding reductions we have had over the past few years? People understand that we have had funding difficulties and challenges and it’s certainly not been easy. However, it has enabled us to underline the challenges we have around social care and children’s social care as well. We will be doubling the amount spent over the past ten years despite the difficult decisions we have had to make and our residents understand that we have to increase Council Tax to implement such spend.
We’ve also created a new infrastructure fund which is all about putting money back in to highways. We’ve heard the problems people have been experiencing with the roads and we’re putting more in to roads than ever before and that’s just for Oxfordshire in repairs.
B4: We obviously live in a relatively buoyant part of the country and with the recent Growth Board announcements, can you let us know more about what that means for the region and for the residents of Oxfordshire?
Ian: It means that we’re getting in funding for parts of the road network and schools. People have said to us in the past that we’re getting in money for housing but not the supporting infrastructure. The Growth Board announcements through the Growth Deal (£215m of Government investment for new homes and infrastructure across Oxfordshire) means we are providing that infrastructure so people can see the connectivity between the housing and the infrastructure that we are putting in place. And it’s not just physical connectivity between work and home, it’s about digital connectivity also….more of us are working from home with remote office locations, so it’s vital to have the digital connectivity so people can make that choice between working from home or going in to work slightly later to avoid the peak congestion times, which is a ‘win win’ with less cars on the road.
Underlying all of this we are very aware that Oxfordshire is a great place with its natural beauty of the surrounding countryside, so we have got to make sure that there is a balance between having expansion, having growth but still providing that great community spirit and the key locations which everyone loves in Oxfordshire.
B4: You referenced partnerships earlier, particularly how you work in partnership with Cherwell District Council here in the library. There’s obviously an increasing spirit of collaboration between all of us. Do you see that spirit continuing to grow for you as a council?
Ian: It’s one of the key reasons Oxfordshire got the Growth Deal. We worked with all of the District Councils, including Cherwell, and because we were working together and because Government could see that we were sitting down to plan where the housing should be and we were making sure we had the right infrastructure, be that roads, schools, doctor’s surgeries etc…Government saw that and said ‘right, we’ll give you £215 million over the next five years so that you can provide that infrastructure’. It just shows how working together and partnership working can deliver better outcomes for everybody.
B4: Oxfordshire is one of three areas which is the focus of the Local industrial Strategy (LIS), alongside Birmingham and Manchester. Could you elaborate on the LIS and what it means for Oxfordshire.
Ian: It’s part of the National Industrial Strategy from Government which focuses on key areas for future business development. We’re doing the same on a local scale in Oxfordshire, picking out the key locations and key sectors that we want to see grow and seeing how we can grow them. We look at what infrastructure we need, what training we need for the skills sector and the support sector around these areas. We are working with the Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP), Government and business to identify what is required in Oxfordshire and we can then go to Government and say ‘this is what we require’ and, if they want Oxfordshire to grow (and don’t forget we are only one of three net contributors to the Exchequer across the country) then it means that Government will be able to provide the funding so that we can deliver that extra infrastructure for growth.
B4: No amount of effective partnerships and collaborations can deny the fact that there’s a lot of hard work to do going forward, but, do you ultimately see Oxfordshire continuing to be an attractive place to live and work in in the future with the plans you have in place and no doubt more plans you have for the future?
Ian: Absolutely, because one of the key things our residents need is good quality homes, so we’ve got to build good quality homes, but we also have to ensure there are good job prospects as well. It’s really important that people have good quality jobs and education for children at all levels so that once they have received a good education, they have decent career prospects which enables them to stay in Oxfordshire. The growth in the economy is absolutely key because if we grow the economy then businesses are paying more tax which then helps the vulnerable residents that we in the County Council need to look after.
So, whilst on the one hand we have some people questioning why we want to go for growth, we can respond by saying that if we have to look after vulnerable people of all ages, we need to have the taxes from somewhere to afford the care, so that growing economy is vital so that we can provide for them.
B4: One of our recent initiatives at B4 is Oxfordshire Voice, a unique public and private sector collaboration involving some of Oxfordshire’s leading employers (Blenheim Palace, Unipart, Oxford Bus Company, Owen Mumford). But, obviously, you are one of the larger, if not the largest employer in Oxfordshire and you face the same stresses and strains as all businesses in Oxfordshire. Oxfordshire Voice is a partnership where we can all work together to solve some of these problems so perhaps you can elaborate more on your role as a business not just as an entity that people look at and say ‘you’re there to solve all of the problems because that’s what you’re here for’.
It’s interesting you say that because people tend to forget that we are a business because we have such a wide variety of different businesses within our overall structure. The main one everyone looks at is highways and transportation, but we also have adult social care, children’s social care, trading standards, planning, environment…there is a multitude of operations that we run across the county and we suffer the same problems that everyone else does. We understand those stresses and strains and what it means for the workforce, the fact that we do need good quality houses in the right locations for people to have a good work / life balance which ultimately makes better employees because they are happy in their home and work environment.
We are delighted to be a part of Oxfordshire Voice and look forward to working with the private sector to face Oxfordshire’s challenges together.