In Oxfordshire, every council agrees that it is time to move to unitary local government.
But nobody can agree on how many: one big one or three little ones? Two or four have also been suggested.
There is no doubt that economy of scale is increasingly important, as upper-tier councils face rising demand for social care and reductions in government funding. Large unitaries can also plan more coherently for homes, transport, schools and economic growth.
The County Councils Network recently published a review that compared the 1990s trend for “boutique councils”, formed from the break-up of counties, with the noughties wave of bigger country unitaries such as Wiltshire and Cornwall.
The CCN’s conclusion was clear: “The scope for traditional savings in smaller councils is limited and many of them lack the capacity to use reduced resources as a driver of innovation and respond to the service pressures facing councils.”
So small may be beautiful, but when it comes to unitary councils the evidence says bigger is best for managing financial pressures and creating economic opportunities.
The question is, can you be both? I believe the answer is yes.
We need a unitary model for the differing priorities of our communities that can also flex its strategic muscles by speaking up for the area to central government; protecting frontline services through back office economies of scale; and supporting our thriving local economy.
To borrow Toyota’s description of the Yaris, this is a county unitary that is “big-small”.
We will shortly publish draft proposals for a single-unitary council for Oxfordshire that we believe incorporates the necessary scale of the county with the benefits of the locally familiar districts and city councils.
My gripe is not with the councils themselves, but a structure that makes it impossible to take decisions in our residents’ interests, as the inability to meet the county’s long-term housing need proves.
My own district of West Oxfordshire has one of the lowest council taxes in the country for a reason – it has worked hard to make services efficient and resident-focused. Oxford City Council has made very different decisions on spending in response to very different needs, including the city’s high housing cost. As result, it now has the largest variation in need of any district within a shire county. These differences in need and the cumulative impact of democratic decision-making must be respected if local government reorganisation is to succeed in Oxfordshire.
So first, reorganisation is means abolishing all the existing six councils: no takeovers and no mergers. Second, the new council or councils must combine the strengths of all the existing authorities.
We will be putting forward a new and innovative model. The big-small council is a strategic unitary setting a countywide budget, that can develop joined-up plans for the homes, jobs, and transport we need.
But the big-small council will also have five powerful area executive boards, built on the geography of the current districts, made up of the unitary councillors who represent that area, and with meaningful powers at that level.
Executive boards could have the power to raise and spend a local precept. Local representation on the unitary cabinet would be guaranteed. Decisions on local planning could be taken, up to a significant threshold within a countywide strategic policy focused on housing and jobs.
Civic and ceremonial functions can be retained, such as the lord mayor of Oxford. Local partnership meetings across the public and community sector can be convened at the area board level, or more locally depending on what works best for that area.
Area boards will work closely with parishes and town councils to give communities a strong voice in executive decisions, with the option of devolving powers and services to community level.
Every councillor would take decisions on the unitary council’s budget, policies and major decisions, and as a member of their area executive they would take local decisions too. In effect, every councillor would be a twin-hatter supported by a single organisation.
So is this all agreed, following an outbreak of peace in Oxfordshire? Not quite! The districts still prefer the retro 90s idea of breaking up the county into three small unitaries, with a modern twist of joining them together under a combined authority. We await the detail of their proposals.
In the meantime, my job is to explain to Oxfordshire residents that they can have increased local accountability within district areas, together with an Oxfordshire council with the scale, ambition, and strategic capacity we need to meet the financial, demographic, and economic challenges we face.
These challenges are big. The solution is big-small.
Ian Hudspeth (Con), leader, Oxfordshire CC