Saturday, 18 January 2020

Council leader asks for possible merger with her neighbour

Council leader asks for possible merger with her neighbour

THE leader of South Oxfordshire District Council is pushing for a merger with a neighbouring authority in order to save money.

The move by Sue Cooper comes after she warned that her council could have to raise council tax and cut services this year.

The Liberal Democrat has suggested a possible merger with Vale of White Horse Council in a letter to the Government, saying the move could provide “increased financial resilience”.

The two councils already share a number of buildings, staff and management functions, with waste services carried out under a joint contract. Mark Stone is chief executive of both councils.

South Oxfordshire was run by the Conservatives until May last year when they were ousted by a coalition of Cllr Cooper’s Lib-Dems and the Greens.

Her letter to Housing and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick was sent after the council approved a motion put forward by Cllr Cooper. The motion said: “Officers are asked to bring forward proposals for South Oxfordshire District Council to consider whether or not a formal merger with the Vale of White Horse District Council, with the same total number of district councillors, creating a single district council based on their combined geography with increased financial resilience, would be beneficial.

“This work should also consider the options for the development of area committees within this model to ensure that decision making is devolved to the lowest appropriate level.”

Cllr Cooper addressed the council’s “poor” financial state in her end-of-year message in which she expressed a desire to find a “sensible” way to fund local government.

The district council is thought to be running an annual deficit of £3.5 million after many years of opting against increasing council tax in line with inflation. South Oxfordshire currently charges £60 less for a typical band D property than the average across all the shire districts. However, the Government will only allow a maximum of a £5 increase at a time.

Cllr Cooper warned: “If overall government funding for South Oxfordshire continues to fall in real terms, and we continue to be restricted in our ability to raise council tax, there will be an even larger financial gap between our expenditure and income.

“It is not reasonable for us to ask for special treatment over funding, but given our years of low council tax it does seem reasonable to ask that we should be able to increase council tax here to a more realistic level.

“If we cannot do this, in the short term we shall have to make significant cuts to services. This is very unfair, when we are an efficient council with comparatively low levels of staff.

“It also makes it very difficult to find capacity to work up proposals to bring in additional income to support longer term financial stability, which is our aim.” In September, Vale of White Horse leader Emily Smith also wrote to Mr Jenrick about funding.

Her council is run by the Lib-Dems, who ousted the Conservatives at the elections in May.

She wrote: “The significant reduction in funding, combined with the total lack of clarity about future financing, has left local authorities such as the Vale in an increasingly precarious financial position.

“Based on what the Government has announced so far with regards to future funding, the council is facing a funding gap which is predicted to increase to over £5.6 million by 2024.

“Local government finance is now being pushed to the limit and the Government must address this issue as a matter of urgency.”

Councillor Smith is open to exploring the merger idea.

She said: “There are opportunities to replace duplication but we have to balance that with being careful that it does not impact access to our services. It is about more than just saving money, which is a factor.”

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