We are trying to find a solution on future of local government in Oxfordshire


Leader Cllr Hudspeth's article which appeared today (21 Sept) in the MJ, the online management journal for local authority business.

This article originally appeared in the MJ, the online management journal for local authority business.

We are trying to find a solution

By Ian Hudspeth

Anyone reading the local government press recently will know the words ‘Oxfordshire’ and ‘bitter row’ have featured a lot.

I have to admit that our disagreement with the districts has spilled over into the media in way that hasn’t done much for the reputation of local government in Oxfordshire.

But before you stop reading, let me assure you this article is not another round of county vs. district fisticuffs.

What I want to do is to explain where the county council has got to in its thinking about local government reorganisation and how we are trying to find a solution.

Although we may have been a bit noisier in Oxfordshire, I know that other areas are wrestling with the same conundrum.

Namely, how do you balance the attraction of economies of scale when budgets are under pressure from rising demand with responding to different communities’ differing needs, which is the whole point of local government.

Both the county council and district councils in Oxfordshire published reports on reorganisation last month.

Both said that having a single unitary council would save more than £100m over five years.

Both reports were equally clear that the status quo is not an option for the future.

They also acknowledged that any local government reorganisation would need to be set up to meet the different needs of all Oxfordshire communities and be locally accountable.

Both reports concluded that the role of local groups such as parish and town councils could be strengthened.

Personally, I am committed to that.

The report commissioned by the county council from Grant Thornton came up with an option that suggested a single unitary council but with some decision making devolved to different parts of the county based on the current boundaries of the five district and city councils.

Could this be the best of both worlds?

Although this wasn’t part of the scope of their study, Grant Thornton sketched out how it could work.

The key features are:

· A strategic unitary council with overall responsibility for determining a framework of delegation of powers and budgets

· Constitutionally established area boards reflecting the administrative boundaries of the current city and district councils exercising these delegated powers and budgets.

It’s still a single unitary but builds on existing strengths and familiar geography rather than starting from scratch.

As a Conservative, I can’t be about change for change’s sake.

This county/district hybrid option has taken the ongoing debate in a new direction as the search goes on for a consensus in our county.

It is a possible option that the county council is keen to explore further while acknowledging that there would have to be a lot of detailed negotiation in the months and weeks ahead.

A recent meeting of the council’s performance scrutiny committee saw county councillors from across all parties interested in exploring this option further – and the council’s cabinet has now agreed to do that.

Central government has said that it will be difficult for Whitehall to strike a devolution deal with any part of England that does not offer a restructure of local government to increase efficiency and value for money for residents.

That is why trying to find an option that enjoys the support of local public opinion and other stakeholders from the public, private and voluntary sector is so important.

As we develop our proposal, we will be involving stakeholders so that what emerges has real local backing.

Whether we can achieve a consensus in Oxfordshire remains to be seen and I’ll admit we haven’t made a very good start.

But, as leader of a county council with the same demand-based pressures as every other upper-tier authority, I can’t turn my back on a £100m saving so we have to give it our best shot.

We need the best deal financially but we also need to acknowledge the need for very local accountability.

Striking that balance is where debate now needs to be focused.

That is the way towards striking a devolution deal for Oxfordshire that could be worth millions of pounds to our county.

The original article can be found here (subscription required)