England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Tim Oliver’s vision for Surrey: A focus on partnership and prevention

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Credit: Charlie Burgio

In this interview, Tim Oliver, Leader of Surrey County Council and 2023 Cllr Awards Leader of the Year, reflects on the challenges of working for a council, and the necessity of delivering preventative and collaborative policies to overcome these challenges. 

The story of Tim Oliver’s local political career is one of resilience, vision, and dedication to his community. Despite the challenges he has faced as Council Leader, Tim’s determination to improve people’s lives and livelihoods has motivated him throughout his term in office. His focus on building strong foundations, fostering partnerships, and developing a preventative framework for public services is truly inspiring and sets a high standard for future leaders to follow. Through his hard work and commitment, Tim has left a lasting legacy that will benefit the people of Surrey for years to come. His story is a reminder that with vision, determination and a commitment to public service, it is possible to make a real difference in the world.

Tim is the 2023 Cllr Awards Leader of the Year, and in early 2024 we had the privilege of speaking with him about his local political career, his dedication to public service, and his hopes for the future of local government.

Do you know a councillor leader doing great work? Nominations for the 2024 Cllr Awards are now open, nominate here today!

Increasing leadership through the years

Tim Oliver has a long career in local politics, having served on both Elmbridge Borough Council and Surrey County Council. In 2016, after retiring from his day job, he decided to return to Surrey County Council, and after one year in a cabinet position, he was successful in becoming the Council Leader. Reflecting on the decision to run for leader, Tim says:

“The County Council at that time was struggling, financially it was not in a good place. A lot of its services were underperforming, and I thought, well, I could actually do something about this, so I jumped at the opportunity to take on the leadership role.”

Credit: Charlie Burgio

Work as Council Leader

Tim began his term as Leader by asking community members and partners what their vision was for the County and the County Council. Inequality of life expectancy and inequality of opportunity emerged as two key issues raised as part of this consultation process. As a result, ensuring that nobody is left behind became a ‘golden thread’ for the Council and was integrated into its Vision for 2030.

To achieve this, Tim oversaw key changes across the Council, including a review of management structures and operational bases, improvements in organisational culture and the relocation of the Council’s headquarters into Surrey.

“Ultimately,” said Tim, “this was about clear accountability—who is meant to be delivering what. I think we’ve made huge progress in improving the day-to-day services and putting a real focus on preventative activity. The whole organisation was kind of thrown up into the air and landed in a way that was fit for the future.”

Balancing the delivery of day-to-day needs and developing a resilient, preventative structure has always been a key challenge and top of mind in today’s dialogue. While sourcing funding and developing local buy-in has not been easy at times, working with partners has played a foundational role in Tim’s work.

Developing a preventative framework for Surrey

Overall, Tim Oliver’s approach to partnership working is based on a recognition that no single organisation or sector can address the complex challenges facing Surrey alone. By working collaboratively with others, he believes that it is possible to deliver better outcomes for residents, build stronger communities, and create a more sustainable and inclusive future for the county.

Oliver emphasised that a preventative approach is key to ensuring that residents receive the support they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives, while also reducing the burden on more expensive and reactive services. To achieve this, Oliver and his team have focused on a range of preventative initiatives aimed at tackling issues before they become more serious. For example, the council has invested in early support services for children with additional needs, with a focus on providing support in schools at an early stage.

“Part of that is the opportunity or responsibility of the county council, but equally, of our partners, particularly the health service and voluntary sectors, to buy into that. The challenge has been to get everybody behind that agenda and to find some funding to accelerate preventative activities.”

This approach is designed to help prevent the need for more intensive and costly interventions further down the line. It has involved working in partnership with other public sector organisations, as well as with the voluntary sector and community groups, to develop new approaches to service delivery that focus on prevention and early intervention.

Risks and rewards of being a councillor

Tim doesn’t shy away from the challenges of being a councillor and highlights tenacity and pragmatism as important qualities for anyone considering entering local politics.

Despite the challenges, he emphasises what a privilege it is to serve his community and how rewarding this role can be when you are able to deliver projects that you know will benefit people.

“If you’re true to the reason you got elected, which is to improve people’s lives and livelihoods, then there are many times during your period of office when you can stand back and say, ‘yeah, actually I did that, I delivered that.”

Credit: Charlie Burgio

Do you know a councillor leader doing great work? Nominations for the 2024 Cllr Awards are now open, nominate here today!

Reflecting on legacy and the future of local government

Firstly, Tim’s work has focused on building strong foundations that will survive beyond his leadership and any future political change. Building a strong financial position has given the Council choices and meant that public money can be used in areas that need to be prioritised. Tim emphasises that partnership working is absolutely key to the success of local government:

“We are one part of an ecosystem, and it is absolutely imperative that we get all of the other key stakeholders aligned in the direction we want to go, and I feel proud that we’ve made some really good progress in doing that.”

Lastly, building a preventative framework is essential going forward. Tim is realistic, noting that the financial challenges facing public services aren’t going away any time soon, and as a result, it’s important to control the demand by catching things early. Going forward, there needs to be a focus on supporting people early on, rather than dealing with the consequences later down the line.

“Those three things are what I am trying to achieve, and I hope that when I step down from this role, whenever that is, that there will be some legacy.”



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