OXFORD could become an entirely self-governing city and the county council abolished if Labour wins the next General Election, the city council’s leader has said.
Labour city councillor Bob Price expects Oxford to be included in a review of local authority structures which he says could follow next year’s poll – once again raising the controversial subject of changing the county’s governance to unitary authorities.
Currently services are delivered under a two-tiered system of the county council and the five district councils.
Mr Price has said that Oxford would become a powerful “city region” if Labour is able to introduce the recommendations in the interim report of a review being drawn up by former Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis – a Lib Dem Oxford city councillor from 1987-1991.
Mr Price’s vision would see the county council abolished and the remaining districts merging with authorities they already have partnerships with. South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse councils would join up, as would West Oxfordshire and Cotswold District, and Cherwell and South Northamptonshire.
Meanwhile, county council Conservative leader Ian Hudspeth has said he has pondered an alternate plan of his authority taking over the districts, but was not working on that currently.
Mr Price said: “The Coalition Government has made it clear that there will be no consideration of local government reorganisation during this [parliament].
“When the new Labour Government takes office in May 2015, the radical devolution of powers and financial resources to city regions contained within the Adonis Report will be accompanied by some adjustments to local authority structures, and I would expect Oxford to be involved in that review process.”
Mr Price envisages that this new unitary authority would cover Oxford and some of its surrounding area – including Kidlington, Botley and land south of Grenoble Road where the city council wants to build thousands of homes.
He said this would allow central government to provide millions of pounds of funding to the new authority.
Mr Price said: “They would be far more effective because the amount of money they would get from central government would be quite large.”
In 2006 Oxford City Council submitted an unsuccessful bid to the Government to be granted unitary status.
And Mr Hudspeth admitted he has considered making a bid for a single authority across the county – wiping out all the districts.
He said: “I cannot deny that we have thought about it but we are concentrating on what services we are currently delivering first. The Government has no plans for local government reorganisation at the moment.
“The Conservatives will win the 2015 election, therefore Bob is being completely fanciful.
“But if the unthinkable did happen we would obviously approach that when the time came.
However, if Oxford did become a unitary authority it would increase costs for residents because they would have to have an extra highways team, an extra social services team and an extra education team.”
The issue was raised by Lib Dem city councillor Jim Campbell at the most recent full city council meeting last week.
He asked Mr Price: “In the light of the increasingly swingeing reductions to local government funding, and of continuing public confusion as to which authority is responsible for what, would the council be willing to prepare a new bid for unitary status?”
Asked for his reaction, Matthew Barber, Conservative leader of the Vale of White Horse District Council, said: “I don’t think Labour will win the next General Election.”
Barry Norton, Conservative leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, said: “I cannot countenance the electorate returning a profligate and financially inept Labour Party back into power in 2015.
“As well as the huge costs involved in creating unitaries, if you compare the levels of council tax currently charged by Oxford City Council alongside that of the districts in our county, it is a no-brainer that district council taxpayers will want no part in a predatory city council’s attempt at empire building.”
Barry Wood, Conservative leader of Cherwell District Council, said: “My first thought is it’s by no means certain Labour will win the next General Election. And second, it is not clear to me even if they did, that they have any such intention to launch a reorganisation of local government.
“Given that, there’s not much point even on speculating on it.”
WHAT IT MEANS
- OXFORDSHIRE’s council services are delivered under a two-tiered system of Oxfordshire County Council and the districts – Oxford City, South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse, West Oxfordshire and Cherwell.
- The county council is the largest organisation by far, and is responsible for services such as education, social services, the fire service, libraries, the majority of the roads and transport planning, trading standards and waste management. It employs 20,000 people and manages about £845m of public money.
- The districts are responsible for planning, housing, licensing, leisure and parks, environmental services, waste collection, some minor roads and collecting council tax.
- Unitary authorities are councils which do all these services themselves.
- There are currently 55 of them in England and, in Wales, all councils are unitary authorities.
- They were created during a structural review of local government in the 1990s, including the changes in Berkshire which abolished its county council.
- A further tranche was created in 2009 which Oxford unsuccessfully applied for.