Monday, 24 April 2017

Merging county's six councils 'would save £100m in five years'

Oxfordshire County Council

COMBINING all Oxfordshire’s councils into a single body would save more than £100million in five years, it has been claimed.

Oxfordshire County Council is proposing to merge services and functions ofthe six existing councils, saying this could save £400,000 a week.

It comes as the Government is phasing out its revenue support grants for councils, so they will have to fund services mainly from council tax and business rates.

The council is now consulting on its “One Oxfordshire” proposal before deciding whether to proceed next month. The new system would take up to 18 months to implement.

Under the current two-tier system, the county council is responsible for highways, education, fire services and social care while the four district councils, including South Oxfordshire, and Oxford City Council are responsible for planning, environmental health, waste collection and leisure centres.

The county spends £737million a year on services while the district and city councils spend a combined total of £84million.

The county council says a unitary authority could also come up with clearer strategies on issues like housing, health and employment and ensure that council jobs were not duplicated.

Consulatnts Grant Thornton say there is scope to save £20.5million a year by cutting the number of senior managers and reducing the total number of councillors from 282 to between 100 and 125. Combining back office functions and services would save £13.4million and reducing office space another £2.4million.

District councils would be replaced by area boards with similar powers including the right to raise their own precept, or share of council tax, and to decide planning applications in line with a local plan written by the unitary council.

The new council would be overseen by an independent advisory group chaired by the Bishop of Dorchester and made up of representatives from the police, NHS, universities, businesses and charities.

A county council report says: “In the current system, decisions in the interests of the whole of Oxfordshire are often not taken because responsibility between councils is unclear and there is no adequate mechanism for resolving differences. Housing allocation is a good example of this.

“A single unitary council will ensure strong and democratically accountable political leadership with decisions taken at the most appropriate level. The status quo is not an option.

“We believe there is a compelling case for change.”

Council leader Ian Hudspeth said: “Councils in Oxfordshire have become a lot more efficient but we cannot continue to make savings without further cuts to local services.

“I want local government’s limited budget to be spent on improving services rather than running six separate organisations.

“We already know residents are confused about who does what. One council for Oxfordshire would be more efficient and simpler for residents with one phone number, one website and one point of contact.”

Henley’s county councillor David Nimmo Smith said: “This proposal would slim down the running of the various authorities and make valuable savings which could go towards protecting services.

“There would be better communication between different functions that are currently split between district and county and it would clear up confusion among the public as to which council is responsible for a particular issue.

“At the same time, the area boards would ensure local accountability. It is very important that a new authority isn’t seen as ‘those people in their ivory towers in Oxford’.

“We’ve spoken with the leader of Wiltshire Council, which became unitary in 2009, to ask how they fared and it seems they have found things much simpler after going through the process.”

For more information and to comment on the plans, visit www.oneoxfordshire.org

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