Comment

21.04.17

Oxfordshire devolution will boost UK economy

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

Peter Sloman, chief executive of Oxford City Council, argues that pursuing devolution rather than restructuring local government in the county is better for the area’s economy.

This year is likely to be dominated by the debates around the triggering of Article 50 and the initiation of formal negotiations to secure a strong future for the UK economy after Brexit. 

Against that background, it is vital that policies on devolution and industrial strategy take proper account of the dynamism and economic potential of Oxfordshire. 

We are a large and diverse county with a number of distinctive communities: Henley on Thames in the south, Bicester and Banbury in the north, and Didcot and Abingdon in the south. 

The county also has many small villages, three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and multiple and overlapping travel to work areas. Oxford itself lies at the centre of the county and is a fast-growing and multicultural city, ranked as the UK’s top city for ‘good growth’ and, along with Cambridge, the most innovative city in the UK. 

The National Planning Policy Framework process for co-operation between local planning authorities grinds exceedingly slow, but it eventually delivers, and the Oxfordshire authorities are now agreed that we will accommodate 97,000 new homes across the county in the next 15 years. 

Working together we are delivering an ambitious City Deal with three Enterprise Zones (Harwell, Didcot and Milton Park), two Garden Towns (Bicester and Didcot), major developments around the station in Oxford and a range of specialist ‘big science’ and research facilities. 

We are already exploiting the potential of the unique knowledge economy ecosystem that has developed around the University of Oxford – currently ranked number one in the world – but much more is in prospect. 

Together, this makes Oxfordshire one of the country’s principal resources for high-quality, knowledge-based growth. 

This has attracted and nourished outstanding and fast-growing businesses with names that are widely recognised around the world, such as BMW - Mini, Siemens Magnet Technology, Immunocore, Sharp Laboratories and Oxford University Press. 

The challenge facing us – and government – is how we can work together to manage the results of our success and tackle the big constraints that we are running up against, such as a congested transport network, housing demand massively outstripping supply and skills shortages in key areas of technical and scientific work.  

It is crucial that we tackle these challenges together, and in partnership with government, in order to make the most of the potential of the most successful economic zones in the county, and that the National Infrastructure Commission’s work on the Cambridge–Milton Keynes–Oxford corridor complements the county-based drive for economic growth and environmental sustainability. 

The secretary of state has made it clear that he will not impose structural changes, and that he is looking for proposals that command a wide consensus and have ambitious housebuilding and economic growth plans at their heart.

This is clearly the right approach to getting our economy moving quickly. Our experience this year shows that it is only worth putting time and effort into proposals that have widespread support.  

The majority of our MPs and three of the city and district leaders in Oxfordshire oppose the county council’s proposals for creating a unitary authority. 

We don’t believe that such a large council spread over such a huge area could adequately manage growth and sustainable development across the diverse communities of Oxfordshire. 

The savings claimed are modest and much smaller than can be secured through service transformation within existing structures. 

The track record of the districts in delivering cost-savings and innovative approaches to service improvement is excellent. 

We strongly believe that this is the time to concentrate on ensuring that our county economy is reinforced to make its potential contribution of the national economy post-Brexit. 

Our collective aspiration is to bring in some £2bn of investment in infrastructure to the local economy while protecting the countryside and quality of life within the context of a dynamic and growing modern economy.  

We call on the county council to stop its wasteful exercise and focus instead on addressing the challenges we face collectively on behalf of the city and county in Oxfordshire.

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