Rural districts unite to fight county bid for unitary takeover

Oxfordshire’s four rural district councils have united in opposition to a unitary bid being considered by Oxfordshire County Council as a response to its financial woes.

The district councils are disappointed that a report has been commissioned by the county council, at taxpayers’ expense, without any consultation or engagement with its district partners.

As a consequence the Districts will now need to respond, on behalf of their residents, to the consultant’s report to ensure that a ‘true and fair’ picture has been painted by the consultants – who also happen to be the county authority’s auditors – and the county officers who have commissioned them. This will detract from resources that should be being spent on service delivery priorities and the districts’ own efficiency agendas.

The report, due to be published on Monday 19 January 2015, has been written using high-level assumptions and having no regard to actual service delivery arrangements on the ground. All four rural districts are at the vanguard of modern, innovative and sustainable solutions that have already delivered, and will continue to deliver, significant and increasing savings for their local taxpayers.

Even a cursory review of the figures provided by the consultants indicates that the savings at £33m are vastly overstated and the costs of implementation significantly understated, yet the county council consistently use the highest figure in respect of the savings even when the consultants, with their flawed logic, give a range.

In an attempt to sweeten the electorate, there is a proposal to bring Council Tax down to the lowest currently charged in Oxfordshire, at a cost of £9m. However, even these figures are fundamentally flawed, realistically being half as much again at £13.5m, exposing the report for what it is: error-strewn.

Realistically, the rural districts all know that given the county’s anticipated budget shortfall of £72m they will be unable to reinvest any savings in a Council Tax cut, or, achieve a reduction anywhere close to the average Council Tax currently charged in Oxfordshire – residents need simply look at the county’s record over the last few years, compared to districts. Under these proposals, Council Tax levels are more likely to move upwards to Oxford City levels, not downwards to that charged by rural districts.

The County case argues that political accountability will be improved, yet the democratic deficit left by the absence of the rural districts would lead the county council to become yet more Oxford-centric than it is already. Do the residents in well-run rural districts really want to place their trust in a huge monolithic county council, which has difficulty managing its finances, is forced to cut vital services to rural communities, and lurches from one funding crisis to another?

The county council answer to its financial woes is to blame someone else, whether it be Government or, in this case, rural residents who will not want a one-size fits all service. This approach to calling for council boundary restructure is of the last century. It is contrary to Government policy, which says ‘don’t waste your time and money on unitary bids’. It appears once again that the county council is ignoring national guidance, in the same way that it did when offered government incentives to freeze Council Tax – unlike the rural districts which have frozen, or reduced, tax levels charged to residents.

The districts in Oxfordshire are at the forefront of the 21st century approach to local government – delivering services collaboratively and sharing resources irrespective of administrative boundaries. All of the rural districts have been recognised by the Government as trailblazers in modern, efficient local government through transformation agenda funding of in excess of £8m based on sound, robust and well-argued business cases backed up by evidence of savings made historically. The county council has received no such recognition.

If the county council was to look at the approaches adopted by the districts and apply those principles to its own services, working collaboratively with its recently announced tri- county partners for example, they could deliver the bulk of the £72m savings required without exposing rural Oxfordshire residents to a democratic deficit and delivering standard countywide solutions that may work in an urban environment, but not across the many different and varied rural communities of Oxfordshire.

From the West Oxfordshire District Council news centre at www.westoxon.gov.uk/news