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The long and winding cul-de-sac of Oxfordshire reorganisation

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Today LGC reports the long-running and often heated debate about reorganisation in Oxfordshire has been reignited in the wake of the government’s decision to consider an option for creating unitary councils in Northamptonshire which encroach on its neighbouring county.

The mess in Northamptonshire has served as a catalyst for the main players in Oxfordshire to hastily manoeuvre into position and prepare for future skirmishes, with oft-repeated arguments primed as all sides seek to seize the initiative and make a decisive strike where it matters, in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.

The origins of this particular conflict can be traced to almost exactly four years ago.

Despite former communities secretary Eric Pickles’ insistence that reorganisation proposals must be based on complete local consensus, Oxford City Council leader Bob Price (Lab) mooted a possible bid for unitary status.

Oxfordshire CC leader Ian Hudspeth (Con) immediately hit back with the assertion that a county-wide unitary would offer greater efficiencies.

The seeds of discord had been sown.

Eight months later Oxfordshire upped the ante by joining with Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire to float the idea of a “landmark” tri-county combined authority.

Cllr Hudspeth, somewhat optimistically, said it was an offer that the government could not refuse and did not rule out a bid to create a county-wide unitary in the process.

Then came the first publication of a number of pieces of research backing a particular model.

Oxfordshire CC’s report showed up to £81m could be saved over five years if the districts were scrapped. But Oxford City Council cried foul at the “ill-disguised bid to grab” districts’ resources.

Undeterred by the opposition from districts and still hungry for reform, Oxfordshire then began to develop a proposal for three unitaries across the county. Intrigued, the districts initially struck a conciliatory tone.

Oxfordshire and the districts then buried the hatchet far enough to submit a devolution bid. The county, still involved in the tri-county proposal, appeared to be hedging its bets in its quest for change.

The plot had thickened but the apparent cordiality between tiers did not last long.

In February 2016, leaders of the five districts launched a plan to create three or four new unitary authorities, with the possibility of reorganisation sprawling into neighbouring Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire.

Along with a number of other local MPs the then prime minister and MP for Witney David Cameron, who had fallen out with Cllr Hudspeth over budget cuts, then waded in to back the proposal which would’ve seen the county scrapped.

Oxfordshire then hit back by saying key local partners had been ignored in the districts’ proposal.

Things then got rather messy as relations soured further.

The districts used their five-to-one majority on the Oxfordshire Growth Board to urge the county to drop its research study into reorganisation and instead back their work.

Acrimony continued as the county and the districts both commissioned consultants to conduct reviews of reorganisation proposals.

Tensions were ramped up into a full-blown row in May 2016.

Oxfordshire cabinet member for local government affairs Nick Carter (Con) branded the districts’ process a shambles after plans to include South Northamptonshire Council and Cotswold DC in Gloucestershire in unitary proposals was ditched for being too complicated.

Cllr Carter warned of a “land grab” as Oxford would have to double in size to include neighbouring towns to meet the government requirement for the size of unitaries.

“Complete nonsense” and a “a ridiculous piece of scaremongering”, cried Cllr Price.

As emotions continued to run high, the government - like a teacher losing patience with an unruly classroom - “strongly” reminded the councils involved that all authorities must back any reorganisation, and subsequent devolution, proposal.

Oxfordshire’s study was published in August 2016 and provided the curveball of raising the possibility of creating a “strategic unitary body” for the county which would replace existing districts with area committees.

The districts then said all councils had ended negotiations on reorganisation but pledged to press ahead with a devolution proposal. The county denied the claim.

In January, leaders from Oxfordshire CC’s three largest parties called for a single unitary.

Cherwell DC and Oxford City once again slammed the proposal but days later, Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire DCs announced a surprise change of heart and backed a single unitary.

In a bid to get Oxford on side, the single unitary proposal was revised to offer it town council status but that was quickly and strongly rejected.

In June 2017, Cherwell and Oxford were joined by West Oxfordshire to propose a new combined authority without a devolution deal and then things went quiet as everyone thought a minority goverment would have no time or inclination to get involved in messy reorganisation rows.

But a series of announcements relating to reorganisation in Dorset, Buckinghamshire, as well as district mergers in Suffolk and Somerset, have stoked fires while the Northamptonshire debacle has fanned the flames.

However, the long and winding cul-de-sac Oxfordshire councils have found themselves in over reorganisation serves as a cautionary tale.

The impending forced reorganisation in Northamptonshire appears to have given old arguments in Oxfordshire a new lease of life. But a fresh approach by all involved will be needed if any significant progress is to be made, and the county’s housing deal is not to be derailed.

By Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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