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Updated: Districts accept abolition to back single county unitary

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Two district councils in Oxfordshire have accepted abolition by backing the creation a single county-wide unitary.

The leaders of Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire DCs, which share a chief executive and services, have today issued a joint statement with Oxfordshire CC’s leader Ian Hudspeth (Con) to say they now back the single unitary model proposed by the county council’s three main parties last month.

The two districts had previously joined Oxford City Council, Cherwell DC and West Oxfordshire DC in supporting a three-unitary model and more recently had been working on a combined authority devolution bid.

Vale of White Horse leader Matthew Barber (Con) and South Oxfordshire leader John Cotton (Con) said they now believe a single unitary is the best way to create efficiencies and added they would work with the county council on a joint reorganisation bid to be submitted to the government in March.

Ed Vaizey, MP for Didcot and Wantage, has also declared his support for the proposal.

The joint statement said: “Having looked at all the evidence, we are convinced that a single unitary council for Oxfordshire provides the best prospect for maintaining high quality services and securing badly needed investment in infrastructure.”

The initial ‘One Oxfordshire’ proposal included the creation of five executive committees to reflect the current district areas. These would have been made-up of unitary councillors in those areas and have the power to raise a council tax precept for local priorities.

The new proposal said it aims strengthens local accountability, with decisions taken on a “much more local level” than offered by the original executive board model. It also said the plan would ensure locally held reserves would be used to benefit local residents while “recognising the collective benefits of pooling resources to leverage investment”.

The statement added that it is “essential” a new unitary must maintain the quality of life for residents in both urban and rural areas, while enhancing “local democracy and autonomy” and incorporating the “very different” social and economic make-up of Oxford.

Cllr Barber said by working together councils could “truly transform” services. He added his council would “ensure they have a strong local influence and impact and offer our communities value for money”.

Cllr Cotton (Con) said he was committed to ensuring “local communities across the district continue to benefit from a council that understands local people’s needs and aspirations”.

A working group of all the partner councils will now be formed to draw up proposals and the city council has been urged to join them. LGC reported last month how Oxford City Council’s leader Bob Price (Lab) said the creation of a single unitary would be “highly disruptive”.

Responding to the latest proposals Cllr Price said they had caused “chaos and confusion” midway through the county council’s consultation on its original plan.

He said: “We have been trying to bring consensus to local government in Oxfordshire through detailed work to develop a fresh devolution proposal with a combined authority.

“By declaring their hand for a unitary county council the district councils of South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse have shattered that consensus and are compromising the potential for major investment in the county.” 

Cllr Price added that a single unitary was “unacceptable” to the city as it put “democracy at risk” and removed the ability of councils to respond to local needs. 

He said the new proposal could result in council housing being sold off, homelessness services cut and community facilities placed under threat.

Cherwell DC’s leader Barry Wood (Con) has also opposed the plans saying they would “wreak devastation on the people he is elected to protect”. 

While James Mills (Con), leader of West Oxfordshire DC, said he was not opposed to the concept of unitary councils he thought it was “the wrong proposal at the wrong time”.

This story was updated at 16.45 on 6 February to incorporate comments from Oxford City Council’s leader Bob Price (Lab). The story was updated again at 9am on 7 February to incorporate comments from Cherwell DC’s leader Barry Wood (Con) and West Oxfordshire DC’s leader James Mills (Con).

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