County council’s political leaders call for public debate on ‘One Oxfordshire’
In a joint response to devolution proposals put forward last week by the four district councils and city council, the leaders call for a genuine public debate on the most efficient and effective way to deliver public services – and to let the people of Oxfordshire decide.
- New proposal lacks clarity and would retain two layers of local government with ‘quasi-unitary’ councils and ‘combined authority’ quango covering three counties
- Unclear which organisations have backed this option, and the county council not consulted despite delivering 80 per cent of local government services
- New proposal announced before government responded to a full devolution bid submitted on behalf of all the county’s councils
- County council backs a single council for ‘One Oxfordshire’ as the most efficient and effective
- The Oxfordshire people should decide the best way forward – once in possession of the full facts about the implications for each proposal
Last week the four districts and city councils announced plans to create four ‘quasi-unitary’ authorities for Oxfordshire, with bits of Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire bolted on. Oxford city would have its own council, with three other councils made up of pairs of districts covering the north, west and south of the county.
This announcement came as the ink was barely dry on a devolution bid to government on behalf of all the county’s councils, which could have coordinated £6.6bn investment in infrastructure and put the control of £1.3bn health and care budgets in the hands of the people of Oxfordshire.
Now, before government has even responded to the first proposal, a new is plan on the table. The press release announcing this new proposal was headlined ‘Council Leaders propose simplification of local government to support a devolution deal for Oxfordshire’.
This ‘simplification’ would involve: five NHS clinical commissioning groups; three police forces and three Police and Crime Commissioners; four local enterprise partnerships (LEPs); three highway authorities; three fire and rescue services, and three local resilience forums with responsibility for emergency planning.
Despite being described as a unitary bid to create single councils for each area, this proposal also retains two layers of local government in the form of four ‘quasi-unitary’ councils with a ‘combined authority’ quango covering three counties laid on top.
We are still unclear about which of the above bodies were involved in developing these proposals, or were even aware of them. The Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group’s logo was included on the website, and then removed within a day. The CCG in Gloucestershire is opposed to the plan.
OxLEP – a key partner in the original bid - was not aware of the new proposal until they saw the press release, and the LEP in Gloucestershire has also come out against the proposal.
To be clear, the county council was not involved in developing these quasi-unitary proposals, despite being responsible for 80% of local government spending in Oxfordshire. Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire councils were also not aware of proposals to carve off parts of their county.
However these proposals have revealed one point of strong agreement – the structure of local government in Oxfordshire needs to change to meet future financial challenges and rising demand for children and adult social care.
We are writing as the four political group leaders of Oxfordshire county council because we believe that for reasons of history, geography and practicality, we should be looking for a ‘one Oxfordshire’ approach.
Like the backers of the new proposal, we are all convinced that the unitary model – a single council serving an area - makes most sense. But they have to be real unitaries, not two layers of local government by another name.
The proposal to create a combined authority quango simply replaces the county council, covering a bigger area and with less democratic accountability. Under this proposal, responsibility for adult social care, along with council tax payers’ money to pay for it, would be handed to the NHS.
Joining up health and social care makes a lot of sense and that project is well underway in Oxfordshire. But handing over powers and budgets requires a proper debate to understand the implications.
Such an important decision cannot be done on the basis of a political deal and a press release – we need real openness and proper information about the implications of each option for Oxfordshire.
Today we are inviting all stakeholders to work together in a jointly agreed process to develop a business case for each of the options, including a single council for Oxfordshire and the four quasi-unitary option put forward by the districts. We will all need to agree the criteria, but efficiency, effectiveness and democratic accountability must be key.
Then, once they are in full command of the facts, the public can make up their own minds about the most efficient and effective way to deliver public services for Oxfordshire. Let the people decide.
Cllr Ian Hudpseth, Leader of the Council
Cllr Liz Brighouse, Leader of the opposition Labour group
Cllr Richard Webber, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group
Cllr David Williams, Leader of the Green group