The future of the city of Oxford cannot be separated from that of the wider surrounding area from where thousands of people travel in daily to work, shop and enjoy the city’s many cultural attractions. While Oxford’s nationally important knowledge-based economy grows, space to house the people who work in and support it is shrinking. Oxford is part of the Central Oxfordshire city-region, and planning for development must be on this basis. This is the theme of Oxfordshire Futures.
On 14 March 2017, 11 days after ‘Better Oxfordshire’ was published, Oxfordshire CC’s Cabinet met to decide whether to submit their proposal to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. This despite the opposition of the City Council and two District Councils – Cherwell and West Oxfordshire.
Members of the public are allowed a few minutes to address the Cabinet. Ian Green a member of Oxford Civic Society’s Executive Committee and Chairman of the Oxfordshire Futures group spoke on our behalf as follows:
Councillor Hudspeth and Cabinet members – thank you for this opportunity to make a statement.
I am speaking on behalf of the Oxford Civic Society and its associated Oxfordshire Futures Group.
We thoroughly reviewed the ‘One Oxfordshire’ proposal and submitted our detailed comments in response to the County’s request. We have also reviewed the ‘Better Oxfordshire’ proposal and have submitted comments.
Our review of the more recent proposal leads us to the same conclusion we reached after reviewing the first draft: the proposal is not ready for public consultation and is certainly not ready for submission to central government
- The overall governance arrangements which will replace the existing district and city councils remain too vague and it is not possible to assess how the reorganisation will revitalise local democracy and improve service delivery and value. We doubt that the proposal will strengthen accountable leadership.
- The proposal for the governance arrangements for the City of Oxford do not seem to take into account its crucial economic role in the county and the complexity of the city’s economic, social and environmental challenges. But the proposal is too vague to enable an assessment of its impact on city management effectiveness.
- Not enough evidence is drawn from governance arrangements made or being made in comparable contexts – and some of the evidence cited is of doubtful value as the contexts are not comparable (Salisbury for example) or not fully explained (Wiltshire and the separation of Swindon from Wiltshire). There is no mention of Cambridgeshire.
The Secretary of State is interested in workable governance arrangements which will deliver better local service delivery, greater value for money, stronger and more accountable leadership and significant cost savings.
A proposal which is not fully thought through and which is supported by only 3 of the 6 local authorities comprising Oxfordshire does not demonstrate the capacity to deliver these.
We very much hope that the Cabinet will decide that more efforts to achieve a consensus are needed and that a submission to the Secretary of State at this stage is premature.
We hope that consensus within Oxfordshire can be achieved and with constructive collaboration governance arrangements can be agreed which will enable Oxfordshire to contribute more effectively to the national economy and to efficiently provide ever improving quality of life for all its residents, workers and visitors.
To our regret the Cabinet, none of whose members represents a division within Oxford city, decided to go ahead and send ‘Better Oxfordshire’ to the government for approval.
Three days after consultation on ‘One Oxfordshire’ closed the County published ‘Better Oxfordshire‘, a 148-page revised proposal for a unitary council. Despite giving some extra details the new version does not address most of the points we raised, and is certainly not ready for submission to the Secretary of State. This is the text of a letter we sent to County and supporting District leaders on 10 March.
For the attention of: Leaders Oxfordshire County Council, Vale of White Horse District Council and South Oxfordshire District Council.
cc Leaders of Oxford City Council, West Oxfordshire District Council, Cherwell District Council and Andrew Smith MP, John Howell MP, Nicola Blackwood MP, Ed Vaizey MP, Victoria Prentis MP, Robert Courts MP
Dear Councillors Hudspeth, Barber and Cotton,
Oxford Civic Society provided comments on the draft of the One Oxfordshire proposal on February 28th 2017 along with an attachment which was a matrix assessing the proposal against a number of governance criteria (differing slightly from the criteria used by yourselves). Receipt of our comments was acknowledged by the County on February 28th.
On March 3rd a revised draft proposal ‘Better Oxfordshire’ was published. In particular this revised proposal discusses in more detail local representation and arrangements to formulate proposals for Oxford city governance. The revised proposal also includes opinion poll results which purport to show significant support for the single authority concept (rather than the full One Oxfordshire proposal) and with no survey methods readily available for scrutiny.
We were surprised to see the revised proposal issued so quickly and having reviewed it in detail it is clear that it was in preparation long before the closing date of the consultation on the first draft. It is perhaps for this reason that it fails to address most of the points made in our response to the consultation.
Our detailed review of the revised proposal leads us to the same conclusion we reached after reviewing the first draft: the revised proposal is not yet ready for consultation and is certainly not ready for submission to the Secretary of State, DCLG. Key deficiencies are that the proposed overall governance arrangements remain too vague, that there are no firm proposals for the governance arrangements for the City of Oxford and that not enough evidence is drawn from governance arrangements made or being made elsewhere in comparable contexts.
We hope that at the County Council Cabinet meeting on March 14th the decision will be taken to put more detailed thinking into the proposal and to re-engage the citizens of Oxfordshire with another consultation. We also very much hope that the proposal is not submitted to the Secretary of State at the end of this month as planned. We suggest that no matter what the opinion poll suggests, it is the case that 2 District Councils and the City Council are not on board. Submission of a proposal with only partial support from the local authorities comprising Oxfordshire could embarrass the Secretary of State who is only interested in workable governance arrangements which will deliver better local service delivery, greater value for money, stronger and more accountable leadership and significant cost savings. A proposal supported by only 3 of the 6 local authorities comprising Oxfordshire does not demonstrate the capacity to deliver these.
This is a summary of our comments on Oxfordshire County Council’s “One Oxfordshire” proposals for a single unitary authority to run all local services in the county. You can read our full submission here.
These comments should be read together with our “Gap Analysis”. The competing consultants’ reports commissioned by the County and the City/Districts focused almost exclusively on financial efficiency. The Gap Analysis looks instead at issues of governance, accountability, civic engagement and democratic processes.
Our overall conclusion on the County’s proposals is that they are fatally incomplete. The problems of governance in Oxfordshire are not addressed, and there is no attempt to look at and learn from how other counties (e.g. Cambridgeshire, Wiltshire) have tackled these issues.
The effect of replacing District Councils with Area Boards is not explored in enough detail. In the special case of Oxford City, the proposal is silent on how a unitary authority would protect or enhance the City’s nationally important economic prosperity, academic excellence and world-class heritage.
We suggested a number of questions and issues that need answers before One Oxfordshire can be taken further. This is a selection:
- The proposals do not include an elected Mayor, but with the right powers a Mayor might be able to achieve a coherent vision which the dissenting councils have failed to do.
- How many local councillors would there be? What areas would they represent? How would those areas be decided – by population, geography, the size of their economy?
- What would the powers and responsibilities of the Area Boards be? How many would there be and how would their boundaries be drawn?
- Similarly, how would Parish Councils, Town Councils and unparished areas be involved? Would they welcome more powers and do they have the capability to use them wisely?
- Public engagement with the LEP and Growth Board is currently weak or absent. How will the One Oxfordshire model improve this?
We strongly suggest it would be a mistake if two competing proposals – One Oxfordshire from the county and two districts, and an alternative from the other two districts and the city – went forward to central government. The failure to reach a consensus is damaging Oxfordshire’s credibility as somewhere worthy of investment, and is a constraint on efforts to address the serious issues of deprivation or to improve the quality of life for all its residents.
In our previous post about the competing proposals for restructuring local government in Oxfordshire we explained we were preparing a Gap Analysis. The aim is to complement the financial focus of the earlier consultants’ studies with an analysis of how well the proposals contribute to better and more effective governance and democratic processes.
We have now released this analysis, which can be freely downloaded here.
Matt Oliver’s article in last Monday’s Oxford Mail is hugely significant, because it highlights so many threads coming together.
It has been assessed that the county needs around 100,000 new homes by 2031, many for commuters working in the city region. The new Westgate Centre opens this autumn, and its success depends on attracting several million additional visitors each year.
So demand for travel will increase. Past solutions of more and bigger roads are unacceptable – people are going to have to get out of their cars. But the bus services are at near-saturation at peak times, and buses are hugely damaging to the city’s historic environment.
Chiltern Railways’ connection into Oxford Central Station demonstrates the potential for an Oxford Metro. The journey from Bicester to Oxford city centre on the new service takes only around 14 minutes, for a return fare of as little as £3.10. A demonstration train to Cowley did indeed run in 2014 – two temporary stations were built and the feasibility of a Cowley-to-the-city-centre service was obvious.
But a north-south ‘Spine Line’, running in the existing rail corridor from North Kidlington to Milton Park, also offers huge potential. These are projects which could be done NOW.
Building an Oxford Metro means recognising that public transport is the ‘skeleton’ on which all development should be planned. Both current Oxfordshire re-organisation proposals talk of integrated strategic planning, so we are getting there.
The biggest argument against such a system is cost. But with the enormous increase in land values when agricultural sites are scheduled for development, there should be hundreds of millions of pounds which could be tapped. Currently this land-value uplift simply benefits the landowner, but this may change soon.
So, the pieces are in place; do we have the leadership to deliver?
We understand that the five Oxfordshire District Councils and the County Council are jointly preparing a proposal which justifies the devolution of powers from central government, leading to access to significant development funding. The proposal includes the establishment of a combined authority led by an elected Mayor. We believe that it resembles the successful devolution proposal for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
Meanwhile the County Council is also promoting an alternative local government arrangement as the basis for a devolution proposal, which includes the abolition of the existing Councils and the establishment of a single ‘unitary’ Council, possibly with an elected Mayor.
OCS is delighted that both proposals attempt to give the vision and coherence to development planning and management we have been calling for in Oxfordshire ever since we published our Oxford Futures report in 2014.
In a lecture organised by the Society in July last year (follow the link for the report) Professor Robin Hambleton, author of ‘Leading the Inclusive City’ and reports for the Local Government Association, has suggested evaluation criteria that focus on governance. They complement the analyses of financial efficiency and we believe they provide a good basis for a gap analysis. Our plan is to undertake such an analysis to show how far the different proposals go towards satisfying the governance criteria and what the gaps look like. This is the proforma we intend to use. We would be delighted to hear the views of others.
Download the Devolution Gap Analysis proforma.