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Oxfordshire devo deal should be sought ‘as soon as possible’

Oxfordshire counties and LEPs should apply for a devolution deal as soon as possible, according to the Oxford City Council Devolution Review Group.

May’s government has been accused of backing away from the former government’s commitment to devolution, with key devo deals in areas such as the North East and Sheffield currently in doubt.

However, a new report from the review group argued that chancellor Philip Hammond’s commitment to devolution in the Autumn Statement was encouraging.

It noted that the case for decentralisation was stronger than a year ago because Oxfordshire, as a prosperous area, would be able to use its devolved powers to support government goals such as trade deals following Brexit.

It recommended that Oxford councils focused on “making the strongest possible case” for gaining powers over areas which would support Oxfordshire’s economy, including transport, infrastructure and housing, as well as developing the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge growth corridor.

The city council’s report advised against seeking devolved powers over health and social care at the present time. The review’s authors described health and social care as “increasingly being viewed as failing at a national level”.

The review group’s members advised Oxfordshire authorities to continue to focus on health and social care integration, but not to seek new powers until the future of the sector, as well as the impact of their local STP, is better understood.

The report also cast doubt on proposals to restructure local government in Oxfordshire to give more powers to unitary authorities. It pointed out that there was a lack of consensus about what reorganisation would look like. One review, conducted by Grant Thornton for the county council, recommended establishing a single unitary authority, while a PwC review for the district council recommended establishing three separate authorities.

Today’s report argued that there were “significant discrepancies” between the savings both reviews estimated their model would achieve, because they had made different assumptions about how services would be retained and failed to take into account the impact of business rates retention.

In addition, the review group said it had heard that central government is unwilling to impose any model of local government reorganisation in Oxfordshire.

However, it argued that there was a consensus in favour of an elected mayor as part of the devolution deal, despite organisations such as the West Yorkshire Combined Authority stating their opposition to elected mayors.

Proposals to establish unitary authorities, floated in some areas as a way of balancing council budgets, have proven controversial. Daventry District Council, which is at risk of being abolished by Northamptonshire County Council because of plans to establish a unitary authority, is considering asking the government to intervene. Christchurch Borough Council is opposed to plans to establish two unitary authorities in Dorset.

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