Two-tier working is preventing improvement in Oxfordshire

This article was originially published on LGC plus 

Early this month, our three councils published detailed plans, called A New Council for a Better Oxfordshire, to replace the county’s six local authorities with a single unitary council.

This level of agreement between Oxfordshire CC and South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse DCs is unusual in local government. It is based on a shared recognition that we must do everything we can to protect frontline services against a tough financial backdrop that highlights the inefficiency of two-tier local government.

At the same time, we need a new structure that feels even more local than the current system.

 A year ago, all Oxfordshire council leaders agreed that the current system of local government wasn’t working. We all recognise that public services in Oxfordshire are under pressure: a growing and changing population is increasing demand for services and budgets are under pressure from reducing government grant.

The county’s population is set to increase by 17% by 2031, with the number of people aged over 90 forecast to more than double by 2030. Rising numbers of children and adults eligible for care are also forecast. The pressure is felt most urgently in social care but also in services such as social housing, where waiting lists top 12,000 across the county.

Housing supply remains an issue nationally, but is particularly acute in Oxford due to a combination of limited land supply and high demand driven by the strong local economy. The two-tier system is failing to address this issue, which means too many people are living in unhealthy, inadequate and overcrowded homes, affecting employment opportunities and some individuals’ physical and mental wellbeing.

Two-tier working has been a barrier to improvement. That is why we are jointly recommending a single unitary council that can make substantial savings, while improving outcomes for residents. A single council has the potential to develop a long-term, sustainable financial strategy to deal with increased demand and constrained resources in social care whilst continuing to address local community priorities.

Under one council, services such as housing and social care would be improved by joining them up, with strategic decisions such as planning and infrastructure having a county-wide approach. The proposal includes an innovative £1bn ‘revolving’ investment fund that could pay for infrastructure locally rather than relying wholly on government funding.

The slowing of the pace in agreement of infrastructure deals with government, with no new money announced in the chancellor’s budget, has convinced us that we need to be more self-sufficient for capital investment.

At the other end of the scale, local issues such as anti-social behaviour and green spaces could be dealt with locally. Joining up services such as housing and social care would enable us to prevent health and social care problems arising at source.

The challenge has been to develop a governance model that retains the benefits of scale while ensuring that as many decisions as possible can be taken at a local level. We believe we have a sound model that retains the benefits of an efficient, strategic authority while genuinely empowering local communities.

The Better Oxfordshire proposal recommends 15-20 area executive boards are set up, centred on the city of Oxford and the main market towns and surrounding villages. Unitary councillors would take decisions on local matters devolved to these area boards. They would also take decisions on county-wide matters including the overall budget and key policies such as a strategic plan.

Despite noisy opposition from the other districts, our polling of a representative sample of residents shows 70% support.

We believe the Better Oxfordshire proposal provides sufficient detail to make a strong business case for a new unitary council. But there are questions that can only be answered during implementation, which will be via an implementation executive made up of councillors from all of the existing authorities. This will require the constructive engagement of colleagues from all councils so we can develop and implement the best model for Oxfordshire.

Soon this will be a matter for the communities secretary. We hope he will agree with us that a unitary council offers the best way for Oxfordshire to meet future challenges.

Peter Clark, chief executive, Oxfordshire CC and David Hill, chief executive, South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse DCs