Unitary reshaping put on hold for now

Oxfordshire map (courtesy of Cherwell District Council) NNL-160721-144940001
Oxfordshire map (courtesy of Cherwell District Council) NNL-160721-144940001

After months of deliberation, published reports, consultations and expense to the tax payer the move towards an Oxfordshire unitary council have been put on hold.

Following months of bitter argument between authorities over how local government in the county will be structured in the future, council leaders have now said they will all enter into further discussions on the best way forward.

In a joint statement issued by Matthew Barber, leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, John Cotton, leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, Ian Hudspeth, leader of Oxfordshire County Council, James Mills, leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council and Barry Wood, Leader of Cherwell District Council, said: “With a new Prime Minister and new Secretary of State now in place and a number of pressing economic and policy issues to work through at national level , we recognise that it is sensible to take the time to understand how the government intends to take forward devolution and local government reorganisation in Oxfordshire and other areas before presenting further proposals for reforming public services and changes to council structures in the county.

“Following discussions with civil servants last week all the Oxfordshire councils have agreed to work together to discuss areas of common ground, assess potential options and establish whether we can agree a way forward building on the work we have both done to date.

“We have agreed to postpone publication of both the Grant Thornton and PWC studies, and pause plans for consultation until these plans have been jointly developed.

“Our aim has always been to seek investment in housing and transport infrastructure; to improve skills training and develop the local economy.

“This investment is needed if we are to reach our potential, and therefore agreeing a way forward with government is a high priority for all of us.”

There have been a number of proposed unitary models put forward since the push for a unitary system of governance was started.

Option one would see all five of the current council bodies, four district councils and Oxford City Council, merge into one super-council that would be a one stop shop for all council offered services.

The so called ‘doughnut’ option would have seen Oxford City Council remain and service the city of Oxford and its unique needs, with the four district councils merging as one to service the rest of the county. This option would produce savings in the region of £15 million.

The third option would see the five bodies reduced to three, with Cherwell and West Oxfordshire District Council merging to control the north of the county with a similar merger in the south and Oxford City Council retaining control of the city. This option would have saved the taxpayer £5 million.

In December of 2014, however, Cherwell, South Northamptonshire and Stratford-on-Avon district councils joined forces and voted through proposals to share services and ‘streamline’ operations in order to save cash.

Since 2011 Cherwell has been consolidating services with South Northants as a shared management team was introduced. This, along with a sharing of services between the two authorities saw an annual budgetary saving of £3 million.

In February 2015 CDC increased its joint working with South Northants as budgets were cut and for a while was thought to be the preferred unitary partnership option for Cherwell.