So how many councils does it take to run a county?

Councillor Ian Hudspeth, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council NNL-150119-124630001
Councillor Ian Hudspeth, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council NNL-150119-124630001

A single unitary council within Oxfordshire could deliver savings of more than £30 million, according to independent financial analysis.

The report by global accountancy firm EY has been released by Oxfordshire County Council and says the saving could be made by combining the county, four districts and Oxford City Council into a single ‘unitary’ local authority.

But Oxfordshire’s four rural district councils , including Cherwell and West Oxfordshire, have united in opposition to a unitary bid, which they say was commissioned by the county council at taxpayers’ expense and without any consultation or engagement with its district partners.

Councillor Ian Hudspeth, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said: “We are beyond the point where further savings can be achieved by finding more efficiencies or ‘salami slicing’ of services and we must find a different way of being able to provide essential services to our residents.

“As leader of the council it is my job to leave no stone unturned in seeking to provide the best services for Oxfordshire’s residents. Fundamentally, I must ensure that we have the resources available to fund the services that our residents need.

“This is the now the start of a debate. I am sure all options in this report will be considered and examined in detail.”

The report has been released as the Cabinet recommends a budget for 2015-16 which requires more than 
£20 million of savings, on top of the £265 million either made or already planned by 2017-18.

The report concludes savings could be made by reducing bureaucracy and the costs of democratic decision making, while creating a single council that would be better able to meet the major challenges of a growing and ageing population. It also highlighted the potential for pooling council reserves worth more than £250 million into a single pot. A new unitary council could then decide to invest strategically in vitally neeeded infrastructure – such as potentially providing much wished relief roads in Banbury and other parts of the county.

Mr Hudspeth said: “After looking at all the options for reducing our costs and still needing to find more savings, it was clear we needed a game-changer to protect frontline services in the longer-term.

“Creating one council for Oxfordshire could well be that game-changer and we need to have a debate about that. By saving £33 million a year, which means council tax could be reduced, I would argue this presents the best deal for Oxfordshire residents.”

It is estimated the plan could cost up to £15.9 million to implement, and that these costs could be recovered within two years. The report says that by moving to a unitary model the new council(s) could redirect a proportion of savings back to Oxfordshire households through council tax reductions.

Key findings include reducing council tax to the current lowest rate in Oxfordshire, which would require a £9 million reinvestment of savings, and could provide a reduction of 2.9 per cent across the rest of the county, benefiting 82 per cent of households.

Reducing council tax by five per cent below the current lowest level in the county would require a £15.5 million reinvestment of savings and could provide an average reduction of £61 per year to all households in Oxfordshire.

The cabinet will consider the report on Monday and a full council debate on the issues raised by the EY report has been proposed for a special meeting in March.