Districts in Oxfordshire have ended negotiations on reorganisation, but have pledged to press ahead with a new devolution proposal. However, the county council has rejected a claim it supports this approach.
A report to Cherwell DC’s cabinet on Monday by the council’s head of transformation Joanne Pitman states that the county, districts and city council had all agreed to push ahead with formulating a devolution deal without a proposal for restructuring.
But Oxfordshire CC has denied this and called for the wording of the report to be changed.
The five districts and Oxfordshire CC have been locked in long-running row over the future of local government in the county, with the districts advocating the creation of three unitaries and the county council backing a single unitary.
Last month both sides published independent reports backing their positions, but agreed to consider all options following a meeting with officials from the Department of Communities & Local Government.
The Cherwell report states that the districts received “clear signals” from DCLG officials at a subsequent meeting following the change of personell in national government that there would be a shift in the government’s approach to devolution.
The report states that the government would still require consensus between councils for any changes, but DCLG would remain open to discussing devolution proposals which include “strong, accountable governance”.
The report concludes: “The leaders of the district, city and county councils have agreed that they will now focus on identifying areas for collaborative working and the reshaping of a devolution deal with the new government that does not incorporate proposals for structural reform.”
In response Oxfordshire CC said: “The statement in the report that we have agreed to seek a devolution deal which does not include reform of local government and improvements to governance is inaccurate, and we have asked for a correction. We are committed to continuing the debate on how we make savings and want to work with anyone who can help make that happen.”
Leader of Oxford City Council Bob Price (Lab) said the government had made it clear that progress on reorganisation could not be made without consensus.
“That is not likely to be achieved, so we are not going to carry on talking about it,” he added.
Cllr Price said work would begin to “re-energise” the devolution bid agreed by the districts in February, adding that “civil servants were happy for us to do that”.
South Oxfordshire DC leader John Cotton (Con) told LGC that the districts would “push very strongly” on areas of reform that could be achieved without devolution, such as the integration of health and adult social care – which falls under the county’s remit.
However, he suggested the reorganisation issue could return as the government prepares to manage the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Cllr Cotton added: “All the stuff around Brexit is going to pile on pressure over the coming months for government to streamline governance and find savings. Reorganisation offers a gaping opportunity to do that.
“Whether government decide they will have to adjudicate or they are going to hold their line and say you have got to sort things out locally, we are going to explore both opportunities.
“The government could do a lot worse than come back to Oxfordshire and say ‘let’s fix something up’.”