East Sussex County Council leaders have signed off on plans to share its chief executive officer with West Sussex.
At a meeting on Wednesday (December 18), cabinet members approved proposals for East Sussex to begin acting as ‘corporate improvement partner’ for its troubled neighbouring authority.
The move, which will see East Sussex chief executive Becky Shaw working across both authorities from January, comes in the wake of highly-critical reports into both children’s services and the fire and rescue service provided by West Sussex.
Council leader Keith Glazier said the arrangement would only proceed on the basis there would be ‘no detriment’ to East Sussex.
Cllr Glazier said: “The proposed partnership won’t be entered into lightly. I believe an improvement partnership, through local government working with local government, is a better solution for us and for West Sussex.
“Something I really want to stress is that the partnership will not alter the sovereign status of either West or East Sussex. Our priorities for East Sussex will remain the same and West Sussex will have their priorities as well.
“This really does need to be of no detriment to us here in East Sussex. We are very clear that – after the first phase – if additional resources are needed, then they will need to be found, if it can be, at no cost to us here.”
According to council documents, the partnership work would involve a due diligence period between January and March 2020. This would lead to the production of a detailed action plan to enable both councils confirm plans, arrangements and commitment in April 2020.
There would be a further opportunity for both councils to review the commitment to joint working or amend as needed following the elections in 2021.
The proposals were broadly supported by other council groups, although members did raise questions about what the move could mean for East Sussex County Council resources.
Godfrey Daniel, co-leader of the council’s Labour group, said: “I’m pleased there will be a due diligence period to examine what the impact is. I have some concerns about the impact on our chief executive, who I think is excellent.
“I’m pleased to hear you say you wouldn’t want any detriment to the authority and I hope that you would also perhaps seek some Government money.
“If we are taking on extra work and responsibilities then I think representations could be made to the appropriate minister to make sure the people of East Sussex do not lose out in financial terms.”
Cllr Daniel also called for cross-party consultation and involvement in the process as it moves forward. This could take the form of advice from council members, he said.
Similar views were set out by on behalf of the Liberal Democrat group by Battle and Crowhurst councillor Kathryn Field.
Cllr Field said: “In principle my group agrees with this proposition.
“[The recommendations] talk about delegating to the assistant chief executive in consultation with [the leader of the council].
“We would ask that includes all the group leaders as well, because this is a decision which affects all of the council, as Cllr Daniel said, across the party.
“I know you are the executive, but actually it is a potential risk to all of us involved in this and the relationship with our constituents.”
In response, Cllr Glazier said he would regularly meet with other group leaders as the process moved forwards, but would retain decision-making authority.
Questions were also raised about whether the move heralded further integration of services between the two local authorities.
Cllr Glazier said both bodies would remain as separate sovereign bodies, with Ms Shaw adding that any future integration would require the support and agreement of both councils.
Ms Shaw said: “I think the strongest safeguard to this authority is the clarity that both councils will remain sovereign, making their own decisions about their own resources based on local efforts and local priorities.
“Any decision to do things together will be when both have separately decided to do so. There is no question today about joining anything that isn’t currently joined up.
“This authority has an incredibly strong track record of outstanding and robust public service and at the core of that is really believing in partnership.
“I think that we’ve been asked [to support West Sussex], because of who we are and what we do and how we do it.
“I think it is a huge testament to this authority and all we have achieved for the people of East Sussex, that our neighbours in West Sussex have looked to us for help.”
In addition to the support from East Sussex, West Sussex County Council will also be undergoing a process to transfer its children’s services to an independent trust.
This process is to be led by commissioner John Coughlan, who authored a Department for Education report which found there had been ‘inadequate and ineffective leadership’ from West Sussex.
Mr Coughlan, who is also chief executive of Hampshire County Council, will lead the process for the next 12 months, with his council also acting as an ‘improvement partner’ during this time.
Huw Oxburgh , Local Democracy Reporting Service