A new council for a better Oxfordshire

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

Peter Clark, chief executive at Oxfordshire County Council, and David Hill, chief executive of South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils, make the case for a unitary authority in the region.

We did it – the bid is printed, boxed and sent.  In mid-March our three councils submitted a joint unitary proposal to Sajid Javid, the communities secretary. It makes a strong business case for abolishing the existing two-tier structure of six councils and replacing them with a new, single council for Oxfordshire that can make substantial savings, while improving outcomes for residents.

‘A new council for a Better Oxfordshire’ is the result of joint working by Oxfordshire County Council, South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils and details plans to replace the county’s existing six local authorities with a single unitary council for Oxfordshire, releasing more than £100m over five years to invest in infrastructure and public services. 

The submission of our bid follows engagement with thousands of residents, partners and community groups across the county who showed support for a new council, providing it is more local and offers better joined-up services. In an independent representative household survey commissioned by Oxfordshire County Council, 70% of residents showed support for one unitary council, with majority support in every district and city council area.  

The challenge has been to develop a governance model that retains the benefits of scale while ensuring that as many decisions as possible can be taken at a local level. We believe we have a sound model that has the benefits of strategic authority needed to run services, such as adult social care, at scale and work with central government to secure much-needed infrastructure investment.

At the same time, we can empower communities with genuine local democracy. Our proposal recommends 15-20 ‘area boards’ are set up, centred on the main settlements and surrounding villages. Unitary councillors would take decisions on local matters devolved to these area boards and key county-wide policies such as a strategic plan. 

A year ago, all six councils in Oxfordshire agreed that the current system of local government in the county wasn’t working and independently commissioned two reports that both showed moving to one new council would save at least £100m over five years and improve decision-making – making it clear to us that it was inefficient to continue to retain the two tiers of county, city and district councils. Some district councils who now oppose change have chosen to present our joint proposal as a threat to services and local democracy. 

The reality is that district councils are now feeling the pinch as their share of the New Homes Bonus is cut. But with the number of people in Oxfordshire aged 85+ expected to grow by 95% between 2016 and 2030, and increasing numbers of people with adult learning disabilities coming into the system, it’s not just the districts feeling the heat. In time, we will all have to make hard choices about services. Our Better Oxfordshire proposal puts local government on a sustainable financial footing for the future. The status quo means continuing to spend money on running six councils, not council services. 

The county is home to significant and strategic business and industries, driven by our outstanding university, health and research sectors. However, business tells us that critical issues such as availability of affordable housing and improving the county’s transport infrastructure must be addressed if this success is to continue.  

Only a county-wide strategic approach to housing and infrastructure can bring about the scale of change that the housing and infrastructure challenge requires. 

A joined-up strategic planning framework will ensure better outcomes overall by establishing a shared vision for sustainable growth across the county, and covering social, environmental and economic development alongside infrastructure delivery. 

Joining up the key strategic functions of planning, transport and housing will help to unlock Oxfordshire’s nationally significant economic growth potential. Our proposal includes an innovative £1bn ‘revolving’ investment fund that could pay for infrastructure locally rather than relying wholly on government funding. 

Oxfordshire has already taken a leading role in key transport initiatives such as the England’s Economic Heartland alliance, which aims to drive infrastructure investment and economic growth. In the medium term, the ambition is to develop into a statutory sub-national transport body that can co-ordinate a transport and infrastructure strategy for the region.  

We strongly believe that a new, single unitary council for Oxfordshire can ensure public services are maintained and improved for generations to come. Obviously, we hope the communities secretary will agree with our view that a unitary council offers the best way for Oxfordshire to meet future challenges.


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