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Districts slam county's single unitary bid

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Districts in Oxfordshire have hit back at the county’s bid to replace existing councils with a single unitary.

This week leaders of the council’s three biggest parties announced their backing for the model, insisting it would save £20m a year, improve services and provide an effective platform for a strategic approach to housing and infrastructure.

Oxfordshire CC had been working with the districts on a devolution bid for a combined authority under an elected mayor.

Oxford City Council leader Bob Price (Lab) said the creation of a single unitary would be “highly disruptive” and called for further discussions on the combined authority model, which he insisted would be established more quickly and efficiently than a single unitary.

He added: “This is the wrong proposal at the wrong time.

“A unitary county council would mean a threat to local communities through a remote planning process that could impose new homes on communities against the wishes of locally elected councillors and communities.”

Cllr Price said the estimated £20m savings in the county proposals were “very small” when set against an expected total annual budget of for the new unitary authority of £821m.

He added that the projected savings also failed to take into account the costs of the transition, including the costs related to the expected loss of 400 council posts.

LGC understands the county is considering giving the executive committee that would cover Oxford under the unitary proposal more powers than in other areas due to the city’s particular needs.

But Cllr Price said the plan would be a “disaster” for Oxford residents and would “rip up” the city council’s approach to services such as housing and recycling.

Cherwell DC leader Barry Wood (Con) said the county had “consistently failed to manage its budget” and the proposal was “based on sweeping and inaccurate information which already demonstrates the dangers of trying to apply one basic model across a varied demographic area.”

He added that Cherwell had protected services through joint working and commercialisation and, unlike the county, had not increased council tax.

Cllr Wood also said his council was one of the country’s leading districts for housing delivery and was committed to supporting Oxford City Council to meet its housing needs.

He added: “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.”

Leader of South Oxfordshire DC John Cotton (Con) said he believed unitary councils were better placed to deliver services than current arrangements, but added: “We must be certain that proposals for something new actually amount to change rather than creating an excuse to kick difficult decisions into the long grass.

“Also, it is important that the analysis of current problems are accurate; we need to know what is broken before setting out to fix it.”

West Oxfordshire DC leader James Mills (Con) said his council was considering the implications of the unitary proposal before responding in full.

But he added: “I feel that the unitary debate is an unnecessary distraction at the moment.

“A devolution deal should be our main focus as this would bring in additional funding for infrastructure which would help sort existing problems such as the A40.”

Writing on Twitter, Vale of White Horse DC leader Matthew Barber (Con) said: “Have long called for clarity on Oxfordshire unitary plans and how they would work – but must consider impact on local people and services.”

Oxfordshire CC and the five districts have been locked in a long-running dispute over re-organisation.

The county’s unitary plan is set to be submitted to government later this year.

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