Don't believe all you hear ...
There have been a lot of stories about cuts to council services and jobs, which may make people think twice about change to councils in Oxfordshire.
In fact the ‘no change’ option does not exist. There is a simple choice: either we cut the number of councils or services will have to be cut and council tax raised in the future.
Running six councils is wasteful and inefficient. It costs £400k per week to run six councils - money which would be saved by creating one new council for the whole of Oxfordshire.
That money saved could be spent on frontline services and keeping council tax down, not council bureaucracy.
Like the rest of the country, several Oxfordshire councils are about to put up their council tax. That is the reality of council finances, as central government funding is reduced.
Demand for services will continue to grow as the Oxfordshire population grows and gets older. The number of people over 85 in Oxfordshire will double by 2030, and we need to be able to look after them. Just as we need to pay for new schools and community services across Oxfordshire.
If we carry on paying for six councils, there will still be difficult choices in the future – council tax increases, service cuts or simply not being able to do things that communities want or need. This will happen because we are paying to run six councils.
The unitary council would strip assets
This is not part of the proposal. In fact by joining services, local assets could be used more effectively to benefit whole communities and improve service delivery, with local communities given the opportunity of running community assets.
As part of removing wasteful duplication, council office buildings could be disposed of, freeing the sites for housing or commercial development with money reinvested in frontline services or infrastructure. Other large unitary councils such as Wiltshire, Durham and Shropshire have demonstrated the significant benefits that can be achieved for residents through using assets differently.
Council tax would go up in Oxford/Cherwell/West Oxfordshire
Saving £20m a year means the new council could improve services and keep council tax down rather than spending council taxpayers’ money on running six councils.
The new council will be responsible for setting the level of council tax.
The county council can’t balance its budget
Remember, this proposal involves abolishing all the existing councils to create a brand new council. That said, by law all councils have to set a balanced budget and the county council has always done so.
Like many other councils that run social services, Oxfordshire County Council has had to make some difficult decisions as a result of reducing government funding and rising demand for children’s and adult social care – pressures that the district councils do not have. The county council has had to make a budget saving of £300m per year since 2010, two thirds of this reduction has been due to the need to fund the rising cost of adult social care and the remainder is due to declining government grant.
The focus on affordable housing in Oxford would be lost
The reverse is true. The city has failed to find ways to work with the districts to meet housing need, and turns down opportunities to agree affordable housing in the city. Today, under the current system, Oxford has the least affordable housing in Britain and Oxfordshire is on track to miss its housing target by 40,000 homes. It is not clear what focus there is to be lost.
Only a unitary council can join up housing and transport planning to ensure housing need is met and the infrastructure is in place to support sustainable growth. A key advantage of the new council will be to address housing delivery including affordable, social and keyworker housing by taking a county-wide approach to planning and infrastructure.
Free parking would end in West Oxfordshire
The unitary model includes devolution of powers. We envisage many local issues such as parking charges being a devolved responsibility so areas in West Oxfordshire could retain free parking if they wanted to. West Oxfordshire councillors should get on board to help design the new council.
Council housing in Oxford would be sold off
There is nothing in the proposal about this, and the three council leaders backing a unitary council have made a personal commitment to keeping council housing in public ownership. Tenants have legal rights that would always be respected. To say anything else is deliberately scaring people
The current bid states that a new unitary council would be in a strong position to pursue all opportunities to provide more new homes including direct build if that made economic sense. This raises the possibility of more council houses not fewer.
A unitary council would not prioritise the needs of Oxford
The county council currently spends far more per head on residents in the city in order to meet the greater needs of vulnerable children and adults. The new unitary council would be legally and morally obliged to continue to meet local need in the city and all areas of the county.
The One Oxfordshire model enables local priorities to be identified and addressed through area boards. The needs of Oxford city are different to other areas and the proposal will ensure that the county, including Oxford, can thrive.
Oxfordshire is losing out by not agreeing a devolution deal with government
Devolution is dead. In any case, a devolution deal would do nothing to improve services or keep council tax down. A devolution deal would mean a mayor and a ‘combined authority’ on top of the existing two-tier system, which adds cost and complexity.
A unitary council is far more likely to deliver the investment in infrastructure needed in Oxfordshire. The proposal for a single county unitary includes plans for a £1bn fund, managed locally, that would invest in much needed infrastructure.
A unitary council would be centralised and couldn’t meet different local needs
The proposal includes plans for ‘area 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 are asking for residents' views on how ‘local’ these area boards should be. Wiltshire and Cornwall have a similar system with about 20 area boards, with councillors taking decisions alongside parish councillors and other community representatives.
Oxford would be run by a parish council
The proposal acknowledges the importance of getting the governance right in Oxford to safeguard its economic and cultural contribution to the whole county.
We are developing a model that would give the people of the city more not less control of all council services provided in the city, but within a strategic framework for the whole county.
What needs to happen now is for city councillors and other stakeholders to work with us on developing a new city government model that Oxford deserves.
Council staff would lose their jobs
The £20m annual savings are partly made by reducing the number of council staff running six councils instead of one. Frontline staff delivering services would be largely unaffected.
The estimate of 400 job losses across all of local government represents about 7% of the total council workforce, excluding schools. Turnover of staff across the six councils is estimated at about 1000 a year so staffing reductions would be partly achieved without compulsory redundancies.
Whether or not unitary goes ahead, it is likely there will be a reduction in headcount as savings are made in other ways in the future. A unitary council is the best way to ensure services and the frontline staff who deliver them are protected.
Proposed A40 improvements are at risk
Devolution will not deliver infrastructure investment only unitary will. The county council has 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.
Why is the county council spending money on focus groups to seek feedback to its One Oxfordshire proposal?
We are asking the public for their opinions to try to improve our proposal. It has for many decades been standard practice for those invited to take part in a forum workshop to be given expenses/small payment for their time and to cover out of pocket expenses (travel, parking, childcare), whether that be a focus group or forum workshop set up by a council, an organisation in another part of the public sector or a private sector body.
It is market research industry good practice and commonplace and indeed it is viewed by the industry as essential to get a reasonable cross section of participants. The fact that people receive this recompense for their time does not influence the feedback they give as part of a focus group. In fact one of the main reasons for focus groups is for organisations to hear detailed perspectives and views that may not have previously been aired to any degree.