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07.02.17

Oxfordshire councils branded ‘fickle’ for U-turn over unitary reform plans

Oxfordshire County Council’s pursuit of a single unitary authority for the region is looking more likely after two district councils which previously opposed the idea have made a U-turn, coming out in support of the proposal.

Last month, the county council unveiled a proposal to abolish all six existing councils in the region to create a new unitary authority for all of Oxfordshire, one which was roundly rejected by the city and district councils.

But South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse councils have now agreed to work with the county council on a joint bid to government regarding the move. This has, however, led to vehement criticism from the councils still opposed to the plan.

Cllr Ian Hudspeth, leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said: “Two weeks after publishing our draft proposal, I am pleased that three of the six councils are now working together to create a brand new council for Oxfordshire that really will be the best of both worlds – lower cost and more local.

“I hope that other districts and city councils will join us to get the best out of the new council for their areas.”

The unitary proposal would see the number of councillors in the county slashed by almost two-thirds, as well as the creation of ‘area’ boards which would have the power to introduce local council tax precepts for their area.

Two independent studies conducted by Grant Thornton and PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that the transformation would save the authorities £100m over the first five years, with initial savings of £20.5m by reducing posts and office space, followed by further £20m efficiencies annually.

Cllr Matthew Barber, leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, said that his council will play an “important role” in developing the joint proposal for a unitary with Oxfordshire CC.

“I believe that by working together we can truly transform the way we deliver our services to the people of Oxfordshire for the better,” Cllr Barber added.

But Cherwell District Council said that, along with West Oxfordshire District Council and Oxford City Council, it “refused to be pressurised” into supporting the proposed transformation.

“When the county council's proposals for a single unitary authority were first unveiled, Cherwell stood united in opposition with Oxford City and the county's other district councils – including South and Vale,” Cllr Wood said.

“The fact that these two fickle councils have now defected to support the county’s proposals does not alter my position or opinion that these plans would wreak devastation on the very people I am elected to protect.”

Cllr Wood branded the idea of a one-size-fits-all council “ludicrous”, arguing that authorities should be giving more control to local communities and that Oxfordshire County Council has proven to be “inept” at managing the responsibilities it already has.

“By proposing a single point of contact, Oxfordshire County Council – with the support of South and Vale – is merely proposing a single point of failure, and it is our residents who will suffer the consequences,” he concluded.

Despite reservations from the three councils, the idea that counties could reform into single unitary authorities has been praised by the County Councils Network (CCN), which said that the leaders in favour of the idea “should be praised for their forward thinking”.

Simon Edwards, director of the CCN, added: “In areas where there is a desire to reform, a single county unitary has a compelling case: generating 68% more savings compared to alternative proposals which can then be reinvested into frontline services, creating a platform to transform those services so they are fit for future demand, and offering the ability to develop locality boards, devolving significant power and money to the heart of local communities.”

Oxfordshire CC is continuing its consultation on the proposal until 14 March, after which it will be finalised and submitted to the government. To find out more about the proposals, visit www.oneoxfordshire.org.

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