Leaders of the three largest parties on Oxfordshire CC have called for all councils in the county to be abolished and replaced by a single unitary.
In the latest twist in a long running saga over reorganisation in Oxfordshire, the leaders of the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat groups on the county council have jointly backed the proposal which they say will save £100m over five years following a one-off £16m cost including removing back-office duplication.
The proposal would see five executive committees created which would serve the current district areas. Each executive committee would have the power to raise a council tax precept for local priorities. The executive committees would be made up of unitary councillors from each area with a guarantee that representatives from those would sit on the unitary cabinet.
The proposal, due to be submitted to the Department for Communities & Local Government later this year, is likely to provoke an angry response from the county’s five districts which have previously argued for the creation of three unitaries.
But in a bid to make this particular proposal more attractive to Labour-led Oxford City Council, LGC understands the executive committee representing that area could be presented with the opportunity of gaining further social policy powers, such as those related to dealing with community cohesion issues, because of the city’s particular needs.
At a joint press conference, held yesterday, the three group leaders on the county council presented a review by Grant Thornton, previously postponed for publication last year, which said a single unitary council would be best placed to deliver a strategic approach to service improvement and boost economic growth ahead of the move to 100% business rates retention.
But Oxfordshire’s leader Ian Hudspeth (Con) argued that a single unitary council would provide the best platform for a future devolution deal as it would have a “clearer structure and decision making” processes.
Cllr Hudspeth said that while the plan was a “different form” of devolution to deals agreed by central government so far, he said communities secretary Sajid Javid was “keen” to see the proposal.
“I do not believe [devolution and reorganisation] are mutually exclusive. From what I can gather from government, they don’t see it that way either,” said Cllr Hudspeth.
Mr Javid’s predecessor Greg Clark previously said there must be consensus in areas before reorganisation is approved. Mr Javid, however, looks set to be more decisive as he prepares to weigh up unitary proposals for Buckinghamshire.
In November Mr Javid praised Buckinghamshire CC’s proposal to form a single, county-wide unitary authority and stated how well several existing county unitaries were performing. “Unitary status can be a great model… But I’m not for one moment saying it’s for everyone,” Mr Javid said at the time. He is meeting with district leaders from Buckinghamshire today.
Liz Brighouse, leader of the main opposition Labour group on Oxfordshire CC, said there was agreement between her councillors and party members elsewhere in the county, although not necessarily in the city, that a single unitary was the best option.
She said vulnerable people were too often “palmed off” between different councils under the two-tier structure. Cllr Brighouse added: “We can’t carry on allowing vulnerable people to have the tortuous route through services.”
The group leaders said a single unitary council would enable social care services to become more resilient, citing the benefits of “substantial” areas of joint working with health organisations including pooled budgets.
They also argued that the lack of clear responsibilities under the two-tier system had led to decisions not being taken, with no adequate mechanism for resolving disputes.
Housing was cited as an example with disputes over local plans meaning the target of building 100,000 new homes across the county by 2031 was “likely” to be missed by 40,000.
The district councils and residents are due to be consulted on the proposals before the revised proposal and public response is considered by the county council’s cabinet on 14 March.
Richard Webber, Liberal Democrat group leader on the county council, called for agreement between all local authorities and said: “Every day we procrastinate is another day lost in making these savings.”