Research shows support for a unitary council – as long as it’s ‘more local’

The results are in and residents’ voices have been heard – people want better services and a council that can respond to local community needs.

A research report into residents’ views on local government reform has been published ahead of Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet committee meeting on Tuesday 14 March. Cabinet members will decide whether to submit the unitary proposal to the government for approval.

The revised proposal called “A new council for a Better Oxfordshire” responds to issues raised by residents during the public engagement exercise. It sets out how residents would benefit from joining up services such as housing and social services. The £20m saved on running six councils could be invested in improving community services and keeping council tax down.

The independent research was led by Opinion Research Services (ORS), which carried out a resident survey and resident workshops. Key findings include:

  • 70% of Oxfordshire residents showed support for one unitary council, according to a face-to-face survey of a representative sample of residents – with majority support in every district and city council area

  • Once residents have an opportunity to ask questions about the proposal, they are more likely to support them

  • An engagement questionnaire – available to everyone with an interest - showed strongest opposition in district areas that had mounted costly campaigns against the proposals.

The ORS report concludes that:

“Overall then, the engagement exercise reached a broad range of residents and stakeholders. In answering the question of whether there is support for the draft reconfiguration proposal, it would be fair to say that each engagement strand demonstrates some support - and indeed majority support in the representative residents' survey (which is the best guide to overall public opinion), and majority support in most of the deliberative workshops.”

The research report has been published alongside the Better Oxfordshire proposal, which has been revised to respond to feedback from an extensive public and stakeholder engagement exercise.

The original proposal of five ‘executive area boards’ has been revised to propose an increase to 15-20 area boards to make them more locally accountable and deal with far more local issues such as anti-social behaviour, parking and management of green spaces.

The revised proposals also recognise that the city of Oxford is central to Oxfordshire’s economic and cultural success. The Better Oxfordshire proposal includes an autonomous local council for Oxford, with area boards representing different parts of the city with responsibility for community and environmental services.

Most significantly, the local Oxford council will be able to raise a separate city-wide council tax (or ‘precept’), with funding going directly to community based services such as community centres.

Cllr Ian Hudspeth, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said:

“We have heard the message loud and clear from residents that they would support changes to the way local government is run, as long as services improved and local communities had a stronger voice.

I would like to thank everyone who has taken part – their feedback has really helped us improve the unitary proposal, which I believe addresses many of the concerns raised.

There is clearly a silent majority who want local government to change. I am confident that the Better Oxfordshire proposal will be welcomed by residents who want to see more money spent on improving services, and less on running six councils.

I also recognise there are residents we have not managed to convince of the benefits of this proposal. I will be continuing to make the case for a new council and try to dispel some of the myths that have been put about by people who want to block change at all costs.”

Detailed findings

In a face-to-face survey of a representative sample of 500 Oxfordshire residents, 70% were in favour of abolishing the existing county, district and city councils and creating a new unitary for the whole of Oxfordshire.

The majority agreed with abolishing the six councils and setting up a unitary council in all district and city council areas, including those districts which are actively campaigning who disagreed.

  • 78% in West Oxfordshire
  • 75% in South Oxfordshire
  • 69% in Oxford
  • 67% in Vale of White Horse
  • 63% in Cherwell.

Even allowing for the margin of error (see notes below), there was clear majority support in every district area, including Oxford city.

The engagement questionnaire – available to everyone with an interest - told a different story – two-thirds (66%) said they opposed the proposal for a single unitary, while 30% supported the idea.

Opposition to the proposal was strongest in areas where the district and city councils had campaigned against the proposal – i.e. Oxford, Cherwell and West Oxfordshire.

ORS, the independent research company, point out that engagement questionnaires are not representative of overall public opinion and can be influenced by local campaigns. The residents’ survey is therefore regarded as truer picture of public opinion.

In a series of in-depth workshops in each district area, representative groups of residents tended to become more supportive of the proposal once they had understood it. Out of 88 participants, 17 became more supportive of the proposal after they had taken part in the workshop, while six became less positive.

Across all public engagement activities, desire for ‘better services’ came through clearly as the strongest message along with the need to ensure that a single unitary council was able to respond to local priorities.

About the resident survey

  • Over 500 face-to-face doorstep interviews were carried out between 5–19 February 2017 by an independent social research practice, Opinion Research Services, which also designed the research methodology to achieve findings representative of the county’s residents. 

  • Face-to-face personal interviews are considered to be the best approach for surveys (the ‘gold standard’) as this is the most inclusive method and does not suffer from the same problems as telephone or online surveys, where some residents will inevitably be excluded from the sample. This method is particularly suited to issues where respondents need to be provided with detailed information before being asked questions.

  • Before being asked about the draft proposal, survey respondents were informed about the current two-tier system of local government in Oxfordshire and given details about the draft proposal. Respondents were then asked a straightforward question about the extent to which they agreed or disagreed that the six councils should be abolished and replaced with one new unitary council.

  • To correct for response bias, statistical weighting has been applied to the completed data-set at both a district and county level to ensure that the survey is representative of the entire population aged 16+.

  • Overall, the results are statistically reliable to around +/- 5% at the 95% level of confidence.This means that 19 times out of 20 the survey findings will be within 5% points of the result that would have been achieved had everyone in the population been interviewed.On this basis, whilst the survey identified that overall support in the county is 70%, the actual level of support could be as high as 75% or at the lower end, 65%.

  • The survey results for individual districts are subject to wider confidence intervals (10-12%), but even when taking these into account there remains absolute majority support (with more than 50% agreement) across all districts.