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'Massively disruptive' Oxfordshire unitary row reignited by Northants

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A “massively disruptive” debate about reorganising local government in Oxfordshire has been reignited as the government considers an option for creating unitary councils in Northamptonshire which encroach on its neighbouring county.

Incorporating Cherwell DC in Oxfordshire into plans to form unitary councils in Northamptonshire would have a “domino effect” on reorganisation, LGC has been told.

One district leader has already written to housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid calling for Oxfordshire, including Cherwell, to be turned into a single unitary council.

LGC reported on Tuesday how Mr Javid said is considering proposals from Northamptonshire CC inspector Max Caller to break the county up into two unitaries, although one unitary covering the county is “not an option” according to a letter to Northamptonshire’s districts from the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government’s head of the governance reform and democracy unit Paul Rowsell. However, proposals for “a unitary authority for an area which is part of a county and one or more adjoining districts in an adjacent county” will be considered.

South Northamptonshire Council has shared all staff with Cherwell DC in a process which began in 2011 and was completed last year.

Ian McCord (Con), South Northamptonshire leader, said he was “encouraged” the government “acknowledge the successful relationship” between the two districts.

Yvonne Rees, chief executive of Cherwell and South Northamptonshire, told LGC the two councils are “looking into submitting a proposal that is in the best interests of residents”.

Matthew Barber (Con), Leader of Vale of White Horse DC in Oxfordshire, wrote to Mr Javid yesterday calling again for a single Oxfordshire unitary - with Cherwell remaining inside Oxfordshire’s borders. Changing the county boundaries would create additional expense, as well as unnecessary legislative and practical problems, and cause a “domino effect” on reorganisation not just in Oxfordshire but elsewhere, said Cllr Barber.

“I think the ministry included the third option [of moving Cherwell into Northamptonshire] because it reduces the risk of a judicial review if they say they want to keep all the options on the table,” Cllr Barber told LGC.

Oxfordshire recently signed a housing deal with the government which includes plans to build 100,000 houses in the county by 2031.

Cllr Barber said a single unitary council would “strengthen” that agreement.

However, Oxford City Council’s leader Bob Price (Lab) warned plans for reorganisation would cause “extreme disruption” to the delivery of the housing.

He said there is “no evidence” a unitary council would make a difference to the delivery of homes, and added the county’s councils are already “successfully delivering what the government wants”.

“It would be very foolish for the government to change relationships by reigniting a debate over unitaries,” said Cllr Price. ”I don’t think there’s any basis for it and it would be massively disruptive.”

He added: “Anything that disturbs that would be a major mistake and a huge disaster for Oxfordshire because it would take people’s eye off the ball.”

Cllr Price also said there is no practical need for a unitary council in Oxfordshire.

“The difference between Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire is massive,” Cllr Price said. “There are more local authorities in Northamptonshire and you don’t have the same geographical and demographic make-up. We are all successfully managing our budgets in Oxfordshire in the way Northamptonshire hasn’t.”

There has been a long-running, and at times bitter, dispute about reorganisation in Oxfordshire for a number of years but this was all put on hold in 2017 when it looked like the minority government would avoid taking decisions on such proposals. However, Mr Javid has since approved plans for reorganisation in Dorset and Buckinghamshire, along with a number of district mergers.

Ian Hudspeth (Con), Oxfordshire CC leader, said he would “continue to focus on delivery” of the housing deal and added: “The Northamptonshire situation will have an impact on Cherwell and I will work with them to find a solution.”

Cherwell DC’s leader Barry Wood (Con) had not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Ed Vaizey, Wantage and Didcot MP, told LGC he is “a big fan” of single unitary council option for Oxfordshire. While that is his “preferred option” he acknowledged “there are alternatives, such as three unitaries, which could accommodate issues such as Oxford itself and links between Cherwell and Northants”.

Nicholas Field-Johnson (Con), a backbencher on Oxfordshire CC, told LGC: “If you ask any of the councillors, you’ll find that there’s no popular support for a unitary. Oxfordshire is not at all supportive of the decision, because a unitary would not be better at dealing with city versus rural issues which need to be kept independent. The idea that we need to evolve upwards into a unitary system instead of devolving downwards makes no sense.”

This story was updated at 14.46 on 29 March to include Oxfordshire CC leader Ian Hudspeth’s comment.

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