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20.01.17

Councils brand county’s unitary bid a ‘disaster’ for Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire’s lower-tier councils have lambasted their county council’s ‘One Oxfordshire’ proposal, calling it the “wrong proposal at the wrong time”.

Yesterday Oxfordshire County Council announced a proposal to abolish all six existing councils in the county to create a new unitary authority for all of Oxfordshire, claiming that it would save local authorities £100m over the next five years.

However, the county’s city and district councils have said that the plan would damage local democracy and take years to create, with local authorities particularly concerned that forcing harmonised services across the county would ignore the specific needs of each area.

“For the people of Oxford, a unitary council would be a disaster,” Cllr Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council, said. “Harmonisation of services across the county would rip up the city’s approach to key services like housing and homelessness, climate change, advice services, recycling and recreation and the arts.

“The needs of a multi-ethnic and socially mixed urban community are very different to the more rural parts of the county. The city is also a focus for the economic vitality of the county, the region and the UK as a whole and there is a delicate balance between its economic, social, cultural and academic sectors that needs careful management. These proposals fail to address these needs.”

Oxford City Council said that the county council’s proposal to equalise council tax would lead to big rises for many of the region’s residents, highlighting that the proposed model has not yet been permitted elsewhere in the country.

It added that the ‘One Oxfordshire’ plan would also make the planning process more remote and remove easy access to councillors, with the proposals planning to slash the numbers by almost two-thirds from 282 councillors to between 100 and 125.

The plan was also criticised by the leader of Cherwell District Council, Cllr Barry Wood, who said that the county’s plans were based on “sweeping and inaccurate information”, citing the district council’s successes in coping under the current model.

“Under the current two-tier model Oxfordshire County Council has consistently failed to manage its own budget and has axed vital services to residents whereas Cherwell has protected its services while also managing to thrive and grow,” Cllr Wood said.

“By increasing the county council's control of Oxfordshire this would only increase the opportunity for more failings and would remove Cherwell's ability to innovate, step in and put right what the county continues to do wrong."

Cllr Price suggested that Oxfordshire should focus on its recent devolution proposal instead, which could be rolled out comparatively quickly and already has the support of the county’s Local Enterprise Partnership.

He added that the £20m annual savings claimed by the county council are “very small” against the unitary authority’s proposed total budget and fail to consider the high costs of redundancy and reorganisation.  

“We would urge the county council to work with all the Districts and the Local Enterprise Partnership towards the consensus that we have been building around the devolution bid, and the resources from government that it brings into Oxfordshire,” Cllr Price said.

Oxfordshire County Council declined to comment on the criticisms raised on its proposal by the county’s other councils.

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