A single, unitary council could save money but it must be right for local communities in Oxfordshire, writes Matthew Barber, Leader of Vale of White Horse District Council in today's Oxford Times.
It is almost a year now since the district councils in Oxfordshire launched a campaign to tear up the two-tier system of local government in the county and create a new unitary system that brings local services together under one roof. Such a system is obviously simpler to understand; it is certainly cheaper and more efficient. But the most important factor from my perspective is the quality of services that can be delivered for the public.
The debate has moved on a lot over the last eleven months, but the objectives stay the same. Oxfordshire needs to find a way to deliver services as efficiently as possible while ensuring that the differing needs of our wide range of communities are understood and addressed.
Whilst we can all understand that significant savings can be made by doing things on a larger scale, we must also recognise that the needs of Oxford City are very different from those of our most remote rural villages. The age, prosperity, industries, indeed the history of the more than 300 communities across Oxfordshire varies greatly, and so anyone calling for change must take great care to ensure these different needs acknowledged and met.
In fact, both of the reports commissioned last year to look into the future structure of councils, concluded that a traditional single county unitary would be too large and too far removed from the population it exists to serve. The key is to balance economies of scale with local autonomy.
The latest proposal by Oxfordshire County Council recognises this problem. The solutions proposed are, in my view, still inadequate but it is incumbent on everyone with an interest in better public services to seek the answer to this problem. The prize is too great and the cost of failure too high.
To be clear, I do not believe the current proposals by Oxfordshire County Council are acceptable. In their current form I believe they will result in a worsening of local services and a 'one size fits all' approach that would be damaging for our county, our businesses and our residents. One of the outcomes of the debates in recent years about libraries and children's’ centre for example is that different communities have found different solutions that suit them. The proposal did at least recognise the problem though and it does go some way to addressing the issue of local accountability and flexibility.
If the county council is willing, there is now the best chance ever to find an agreement that satisfies all concerns, delivering savings through economies of scale whilst guaranteeing local flexibility within a single authority. It would be unlike any other unitary previously created. It would ensure we really did abolish all of the existing councils, rather than simply expand the county council into new areas. It could even prove to be a model for other areas of the country.
Oxfordshire is often seen by the rest of the country as being at the centre of the current unitary debate. A year ago we were certainly one of the first to seriously look at how to make it work. With the cooperation and good will on all sides we could also be the first to find the answer.
No-one has a monopoly on good ideas. There is much within the 'One Oxfordshire' proposal to be welcomed, but there is also much which concerns me. Rather than simply presenting opposing views it would be much better to take the best of all models and try to create something that really works for our county. Not just One Oxfordshire, but a BETTER OXFORDSHIRE.