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Oxfordshire devolution deal ‘dead’ as councils wage unitary row

The proposed devolution deal for the Oxfordshire region has hit an obstacle as a feud between the county council and the region’s district councils over a unification deal has caused disagreement.

Previously, a devolution deal was being drawn up for Oxfordshire that would have devolved powers for transport, education and housing to the district councils, but now the deal could be stopped as the county council’s bid to create a unitary authority has stopped the process in its tracks.

The county council’s unitary proposal, called One Oxfordshire, has sparked anger with district councillors as One Oxfordshire’s website said that “devolution is dead”, leading councillors to believe that the timing of the unitary proposal is overshadowing the region’s bid for devolved powers.

One Oxfordshire has not officially ruled out the idea of a devolution deal, as the county council said it is continuing to work with the districts/city on a separate devolution proposal. The county council did go on to question whether central government still had the “appetite” for devolution proposals which continue to, in their words, “fall apart” across the country.

A spokeswoman from Oxfordshire County Council said: “The county council has always been committed to a devolution deal that would deliver vital investment for Oxfordshire. We just don’t think that adding a combined authority quango and an elected mayor on top of the existing parish, district and county council structure is the right way to go.

“The government has told us that a unitary council is a good vehicle for devolution, so let’s make local government in Oxfordshire simpler, not even more complicated and costly.”

The county council has also appealed to Oxford residents to not listen to the city council’s arguments about the dangers of a unification deal, designed to apparently “scare” residents to vote against the proposal, saying: “The proposal to replace all six Oxfordshire councils (including the county council) with a brand new council is good for Oxfordshire, with the city of Oxford as its beating economic and cultural heart.

“Many people are concerned about the potential for lack of autonomy for Oxford. We understand that and want to develop a model for local government that allows Oxford residents to make different choices to the rest of the county.”

They also invited Oxford City Council “around the table” to develop a model for local government in Oxford that meets the needs of Oxford residents.

Speaking of the One Oxfordshire proposal, councillor Bob Price, leader of Oxfordshire City Council had said: “Our concern is that the proposals for a county council unitary will mean the voice of the City will be lost, and the vital services that Oxford City Council protects could be put at risk.”

The council also launched a petition urging Oxford residents to reject the proposals.

Another district councillor, Cherwell’s, Barry Wood also expressed his dismay at the proposed unification: “The county council and its report have failed to take into consideration the individual challenges and successes of each district; to try and force a like-for-like comparison would be like trying to compare apples with oranges.

“But if a county-wide unitary model were adopted the specific needs of each district would be ignored in favour of the needs of the county, with a sterile uniformity and local voices would be lost in the distance.

“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.

“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.”

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