Why are there pressures on council services?
Central government has reduced funding for the county, districts and city council. Soon council services will mainly be paid for locally from council tax and business rates, as well as charging for some services. At the same time, the population is ageing and growing, which puts pressure on services. Two independent studies found that by creating a single ‘unitary’ council for Oxfordshire, at least £20m could be saved every year. This is after the one-off cost of reorganisation.
Why has the unitary proposal been renamed as Better Oxfordshire?
The change reflects the fact that these are new proposals developed in response to public and stakeholder feedback, put forward by a new partnership of Oxfordshire County Council, and South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils. The underlying case for a unitary council change remains the same, but the proposal has been changed and so has been given a new title.
What issues were raised by the public?
Many points were raised, with the biggest theme relating to the importance of local accountability and ability to respond to different community needs. The importance of a new model for governance in Oxford city providing greater local autonomy has also been strongly raised. These issues have been addressed in the new proposal.
Is there public support for the proposal?
Yes. A face-to-face survey of a representative sample of residents found 70% supported the unitary proposal, with majority support across each of the district and city areas.
Have you taken account of the petitions against the proposal?
Yes we note the level of interest in the unitary debate, particularly in Oxford city. The new proposal has been changed to take account of the issues raised. The new model of local government has community involvement and tax raising powers to fund community services.
How has the final proposal changed from the original draft?
Significant changes include: increasing the number of area boards to make them more locally accountable; a new model for local government in Oxford; ensuring there would be no steep council tax increases for any residents as a result of ‘equalisation’, and developing the model for local planning decisions.
Will there be consultation on the new proposals outlined in the bid?
There has already been a public and stakeholder engagement exercise on the draft proposals which, resulted in these revised proposals. If the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government decides to take these proposals forward, the law requires him formally to consult with all authorities who would be affected by the change, and any other such persons or organisations as he considers appropriate. The change would also require a Parliamentary Order before it went ahead.
What happens if the Secretary of State turns down the proposal?
We would need to review the basis of the decision before considering next steps.
What are ‘area executive boards?’
The proposal includes ‘area executive boards’ that would have powers and budget to take decisions for local areas. The presumption is that decisions should be taken as locally as possible. We envisage about 15-20 area executive boards centred on the main market towns of Oxfordshire, with several area executive boards within Oxford city. Wiltshire and Durham have a similar system, with councillors tackling local decisions alongside parish councillors and representatives of towns.
Where will planning decisions be taken?
On day one there would be a strategic committee and five local planning committees on existing district boundaries reflecting the fact that the local plans are still in place. These planning sub-committees with members drawn from those representing the relevant area will take the majority of planning decisions.
A strategic planning committee would be responsible for strategic decisions that had an impact at the level of the whole county, minerals and waste decisions and applications brought by the authority itself. As a new strategic plan for the county is developed, boundaries and scale for the sub-committees are likely to be reviewed.
How would the £20m savings be made?
Savings would be made in a number for ways including: reducing duplication of ‘back office’ functions such as HR and finance; reducing the number of councillors and senior officers, and reducing the amount of office space needed by council staff.
Would council tax go up under a unitary council?
Council tax consists of payments to the county council, district or city council, Police and Crime Commissioner, and parishes or town councils in most areas. The unitary element of council tax would replace the county and district/city payments, and would be ‘harmonised’.
The council tax bands for payments to the new council would be the same across Oxfordshire. Ultimately council tax will be decided by councillors of the new council. Parishes and town councils will continue to raise a precept to pay for community services.
Is unitary the same as ‘devolution?’
No. In the current debate in Oxfordshire devolution refers to the objective of encouraging central government to give Oxfordshire more funding and powers in order to improve the planning of growth and the delivery of the infrastructure which needs to go alongside that growth.
The alternative proposed by some district councils is to create a 'combined authority' and an Oxfordshire Mayor. Government has never yet agreed a combined authority for a single county council area.
Can we have devolution without a mayor?
Yes – that happened in Cornwall.
The proposal for a single county unitary includes plans for a £1bn fund, managed locally, that would invest in much needed infrastructure. By releasing funds and strategic reserves it would also enable Oxfordshire to go to government with a serious offer.
Are proposed A40 improvements at risk?
No. The county council has already made a £3m down payment that will secure a £35m improvement to the A40 and is looking for a long-term solution that could be funded from a £1bn unitary investment fund.