Dave Valler is Reader in Planning, School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes, and Chair of the RSA London and South East Branch. His research interests range across local and regional economic development, urban theory and politics, sub-national governance and policy, and science/hi-tech spaces. He has recently published research specifically on theoretical and practical planning and governance issues in the South East including questions of urban political dissonance (Territory, Politics, Governance 2018), local planning cultures and legacies (Planning Theory and Practice 2018), economic governance evaluation (Town Planning Review 2016), and planning for high-tech growth (Environment and Planning C 2014; Town Planning Review 2012).
Later this month the Government will publish its promised Devolution White Paper, as announced by Simon Clarke MP (Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government) at the Local Government Association’s annual conference in July. This forms part of a broader transformational programme and represents, it is claimed, a ‘clear, ambitious strategy for strengthening our local institutions’. The plan will encourage more unitary councils and many more elected mayors, seeking to increase the visibility and accountability of local leadership, reduce the complexity and cost of local governance, and empower lower-level town and parish councils. It builds on a good amount of reorganisation which has already been achieved in recent times, with unitary councils recently in place in Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Northamptonshire, a substantial growth in the numbers of city-regional mayors, 10 combined authorities operating in England, and numerous other local links and working relationships.
Years of austerity and local government spending cuts have undoubtedly pushed local authorities into some of these major changes, in the search for efficiencies and service transformation. Developments have taken place within the context of a wider ‘devolution revolution’ since 2010, wherein wide-ranging powers, responsibilities and resources have been decentralised through bespoke arrangements, with central-local ‘deals’ often requiring significant changes in the shape and operation of urban governance forms – a point which underlines the level of ongoing central government influence. The project evolved through the introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in 2011, City Deals, Growth-Deals, and ‘Devo-deals’ with a number of cities and other local authorities. Combined Authorities (CAs) emerged to formalise joint working, with the forerunner case being Greater Manchester in 2011 and further CAs introduced in the intervening period.
While the overall direction of travel here is clear, the path of local government reorganisation is, of course, often extremely complex and highly contested. Here in Oxfordshire, the recent launch of a new PwC report (August 2020) commissioned by the County Council and Cherwell District Council setting out the options for local government reform was immediately ‘rubbished’ by other political leaders around the County, claiming that the proposals are ‘rushed and flawed’ and questioning the timing of the report as well as the implications of a single unitary council for the county for local democracy (see: https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/18678129.merging-oxfordshires-councils-new-report-sets-options/). The PwC report sets out three potential options for Oxfordshire’s councils: (i) closer collaboration between existing councils through sharing resources and avoiding duplication; (ii) a single unitary council covering the whole county; and (iii) two unitaries, splitting Oxfordshire into two areas of equal population. But the response from other county authorities was withering, with Susan Brown, Labour leader of Oxford City Council, questioning the need for restructuring in the midst of a global pandemic, and James Mills, Conservative leader of West Oxfordshire District Council arguing that a single large authority would leave residents of Oxfordshire feeling disenfranchised – “Local government should be local”.
The instant criticisms here are not surprising given the scars left over from quite recent battles over local government reorganisation in Oxfordshire, running from 2014-2017. The conflict, strategizing and manoeuvring in these episodes give some sense of the nature and history of local politics in Oxfordshire, and perhaps warn against any simple and straightforward resolution in coming months. In many ways this background reflects the real stuff of local politics, full of intrigue, second-guessing, sharp elbows and unexpected turns. Telling this intricate and at times rather astonishing story here gives some sense of the battles to come in Oxfordshire, and maybe in other areas too.
The initial skirmish in the conflict over unitary government was the unveiling in December 2014 of a combined authority plan by Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire County Councils. However, the district councils across the respective counties had not been engaged in associated discussions and the tri-county unitary idea was effectively stillborn. A year later a devo-deal for Oxfordshire was formally proposed to DCLG/BIS/Cabinet Office, with the Oxfordshire Growth Board (OGB) proffered as a potential Combined Authority. The proposal was for a February 2016 deal, but the likely central government requirement for an associated directly-elected Mayor or significant local government reorganisation was clearly a major potential obstacle. In the event, February 2016 saw a radically different devo-deal proposal come forward for 4 new ‘local unitary’ councils in Oxfordshire working with the NHS, Police and LEPs, and the proposed abolition of Oxfordshire County Council. The new ‘local unitaries’ were driven by the existing district councils, but with reorganisation both within Oxfordshire itself and outside to neighbouring districts in other counties. The 4 local unitaries would thus be: ‘Southern Oxfordshire UA’ (incorporating Vale of the White Horse DC and South Oxfordshire DC); ‘Oxford City UA’ (based on the current city council boundary); ‘West Oxfordshire-Cotswold UA’ (WODC plus Cotswold DC in Gloucestershire); and ‘Cherwell-South Northants UA’ (Cherwell DC plus SNDC in Northamptonshire). This proposal clearly came as a complete surprise to Oxfordshire County, as a note from the Chief Executive to County Council staff on 25th February made abundantly clear, and a Local Government Chronicle briefing of the same date was titled “Seven districts, three counties, one big mess”. The County Council leader wrote to district council leaders on 2nd March 2016 with evident anger:
Dear District Council Leader,
We read with interest your press release headlined ‘Council Leaders propose simplification of local government to support a Devolution Deal for Oxfordshire’.
This ‘simplification’ would involve: five clinical commissioning groups; three police forces and three Police and Crime Commissioners; four LEPs; three highways authorities; three fire and rescue services, and three local resilience forums with responsibility for emergency planning. Your proposal also retains two layers of local government in the form of four ‘quasi-unitary’ councils and a combined authority quango spread across three counties.
We are still unclear about which of the above bodies were involved in developing these proposals, or were even aware of them. We note that the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group’s logo was included on the website, and then removed within a day. The CCG in Gloucestershire has registered its opposition to the plan. We are told that OxLEP were not aware of the proposal until they saw the press release, and the LEP in Gloucestershire has also come out against the proposal. The lack of involvement of key partners in the proposals is remarkable, not to mention the fact that none of the three county councils, which account for 80% of local authority budgets in their areas, were consulted… The way the proposals were announced last week was disappointing after all the work that had gone into the devolution bid submitted only weeks before…
Following this substantial disagreement, the seven district councils commissioned a study into the future of local government, and urged Oxfordshire County to join this project. In April 2016 PwC were appointed to undertake the study which would report in late-June. In May, however, Oxfordshire County separately commissioned Grant Thornton consultants to undertake an alternative review of options for the future structure of local government within the county. At the same time, following local elections in May, the cross-boundary options with Cotswold and South Northamptonshire District Councils were ruled out. This effectively reinforced the outcome of PwC’s early conversations with senior civil servants, where cross-boundary unitary options were viewed as too complicated and likely to result in lengthy delays to the devolution process. Yet rather than provide for some pause for consideration, further tensions were immediately apparent as reported in the Oxford Mail (20th May 2016) under the headline: ‘Row erupts as Oxford City Council accused of plot to absorb Abingdon, Kidlington, Wheatley and Eynsham’. This highlighted a reported claim from Oxfordshire County that a move to extend the boundaries of Oxford city was being looked at by district councils as part of plans for local government reorganisation around 5 district unitaries in the county based on the current district structures, with a Combined Authority building on the OGB.
Subsequently though, the debate over reorganisation was temporarily halted in mid-July 2016 following the Brexit referendum on 23rd June and the ensuing resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. After discussions with civil servants, at which DCLG officials made clear that central government would not act as referee between different proposals, all six council leaders agreed to step back and await further developments. Publication of the respective PwC and Grant Thornton studies was postponed, with both eventually being released on 17th August. The following day the Oxford Mail reported that all six Council leaders refused to comment further on the reports, under the headline: ‘Council leaders keep quiet over failed council shake-up that cost taxpayer £200k’. Instead, the leaders announced their agreement to revive proposals for some form of devolution bid, with the County Council favouring a single unitary for the county, while the City and District Councils called for three unitaries and a Combined Authority.
‘Council leaders keep quiet over failed council shake-up that cost taxpayer £200k’ (Oxford Mail front page, 18 August 2016)
After a period of hiatus, in early December 2016 a LEP Board meeting confirmed a wish on the part of the LEP to prioritise securing a devolution deal with government at the earliest opportunity. LEP support was confirmed for a revised submission to government for a devolution deal based on a Combined Authority and elected mayor model for the current county, city and district councils. Local authority leaders were asked to seek a commitment from each of their councils to support this approach and to enable rapid and collective progress on a serious proposal to government. However, on 19 January 2017 the Oxford Mail reported a bid launched by Oxfordshire County for an Oxfordshire unitary ‘super council’ which would take over all of the districts and the city. An accompanying discussion document was released under the rubric ‘One Oxfordshire’, titled: ‘A Fresh Start for Oxfordshire: Proposals for a new Unitary Authority’. This was claimed by the County to be a separate initiative from the plans for an elected Mayor and devo-deal for Oxfordshire. Two weeks later, on 6th February, the leaders of VOWHDC, SODC and Oxfordshire County agreed a joint statement around improving key areas of ‘One Oxfordshire’, including the need for more local decision making. The principle was accepted by these authorities not least because it had become clear that the earlier proposal for 3 or 4 UAs would likely be rejected by government on financial and other grounds, and would be unable to command consensus within the county. At the same time, agreement had ostensibly been achieved across the district, city and county councils to produce devolution proposals for submission to government in early March. Yet the basis for such proposals was heavily contested. Indeed, while VOWHDC, SODC and Oxfordshire County argued for a single unitary, it was reported in a VOWHDC Cabinet Report (VOWHDC 6th March 2017, para 32) that: ‘The City Council, West Oxfordshire District Council and Cherwell District Council have not been prepared to engage in developing a shared proposal, and have continued an active public relations campaign, both jointly and individually, against proposals to reform local government in Oxfordshire’. The ‘super council’ row escalated further on social media with Oxford City launching a petition against the unitary plan. Leaked emails to the Oxford Mail then revealed the councils as a whole postponing a devolution bid, and the Oxfordshire County leader, responding to the LEP Chief Executive, claimed that key figures were ‘casting doubt’ over the prospect of future devolution deals. Observing all this from the outside, the Chair of Oxford Civic Society accused the local authorities of presiding over ‘a shambles’, stating:
There is a desperate need for councils in Oxfordshire to work together more closely but the unitary council proposals do not have widespread support and now people seem to be jumping ship from the devolution bid. This is going to look like a complete shambles to the Government. And I am sure they will also be frustrated because they have clearly recognised the economic potential of Oxford but it now risks not being delivered because of petty squabbling between local authorities here. It is very unfortunate (Oxford Mail, 14 February 2017)
By the end of February 2017 the devo-deal bid based on an elected mayor and CA model was in danger of collapse, with the district and city councils accusing the County of trying to kill off a devolution bid with the super council proposal. The Oxford Paper of 2nd March wryly observed in its front page headline: ‘Councils split over plan to become one’. This was denied by the ‘One Oxfordshire’ proponents, who argued that the unitary proposals did not prevent Oxfordshire from pursuing a devo-deal which indeed would benefit from simpler and more efficient local government organisation, and stronger governance arrangements for the delivery of infrastructure and growth.
Front page of The Oxford Paper, March 2, 2017.
Finally, the episode ground to a partial conclusion on 23 March 2017 when Oxfordshire County, SODC and VOWHDC submitted the ‘One Oxfordshire’ unitary proposal, now renamed ‘A new council for a Better Oxfordshire’, to reflect more explicitly the diversity of the county. But after that there was no official response from government, with Oxfordshire apparently filed in a ‘too difficult’ folder… perhaps this is the folder that will be dusted down and reopened in Autumn 2020?
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