A commentary on the reorganisation row in Oxfordshire
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The latest twist in the long-running saga over reorganisation in Oxfordshire is a further reminder that, despite some suggestions to the contrary, the five districts and the county remain as divided as ever on how to proceed.
Since Oxfordshire CC proposed the creation of a single unitary last year, the two sides have been locked in a bitter war of words over the future direction of travel which has seemingly left them going round in circles.
The commissioning of rival reviews by both sides was always unlikely to pave the way for agreement and showed the extent of the ill-feeling on both sides that had built up over months of accusations and counter accusations.
The decision by the districts in May to abandon the complicated cross-boundary option for reorganisation involving councils in Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire should have provided an opportunity for those on both sides to draw breath.
But instead insults began to be traded in both directions, with the county taking the opportunity to brand the districts’ process “a shambles”.
Then over the summer the county’s review was published with a curveball proposal for the creation of a “strategic unitary” with some powers delegated to area committees reflecting the district boundaries.
The districts’ conciliatory response suggested a welcome lull in hostilities which may have enabled space for considered reflection on the best way forward.
But the recent publication of a report to Cherwell’s executive has thrown yet another spanner in the works.
It asserted that the districts and county had finally reached agreement on a common goal and a process of achieving it by working on a devolution deal that did not incorporate structural reform.
But the county was soon demanding that wording be changed as no such agreement existed.
The row, though no doubt driven by strong beliefs on both sides on what is right for the efficient delivery of services in Oxfordshire, is likely to have caused confusion among the general public looking on.
The situation in Oxfordshire has become a striking example of the potential complications and struggles of reorganisation and devolution in two-tier areas.
There have been repeated calls for clearer guidance on what governance arrangements would be acceptable to ministers.
The Cherwell report also said the districts were given a clear indication during a meeting with the Department for Communities & Local Government that there would be a change in the government’s approach to devolution and public service reform under the new leadership.
South Oxfordshire leader John Cotton (Con) predicted the government might have to “adjudicate” on reorganisation as the pressure for efficiencies rise as the UK prepares to leave the European Union.
While the focus has been on a potential softening of the requirement for an elected mayor in devolution deals, it appears only a more hands on approach by government can secure progress in areas where councils are caught in a cycle of conflict.