WHAT could you do with savings of £400,000 a week?

That is how much cash Oxfordshire County Council says could be found by scrapping our six biggest councils and merging them into one organisation.

The authority says running all these different organisations is a waste of money when they could be replaced with a single super council.

It suggests the money – £20m savings a year – could be used to fill 300,000 potholes, or provide one million hours of home care. 

In its detailed proposals for ‘One Oxfordshire’, it has set out how this would work and is asking people for their views.

But the change would mean abolishing the county council, Oxford City Council, West Oxfordshire District Council, Cherwell District Council, South Oxfordshire District Council and Vale of White Horse District Council – and up to 180 councillors and 400 staff losing their jobs.

It is also far from a done deal. The Government has previously said local agreement among council leaders is needed and that looks unlikely.

But officials remain insistent that there could be a sea change, with many watching a similar bid in Buckinghamshire closely.

So what could we expect if there was just one council for all of Oxfordshire?

Councillors would face a cull

PEOPLE would be represented on a new super-council for Oxfordshire by between 100 and 125 councillors, according to proposals published yesterday.

This is less than half the total number across all six of the biggest councils currently, about 280. But Richard Webber, pictured above, leader of Oxfordshire County Council’s Liberal Democrat group, said it would not mean a loss of democratic accountability.

He said: “The big advantage to this is by only having one councillor responsible for an area you actually make it more understandable from residents’ point of view.

“My view is that, far from reducing democratic accountability, that is likely to increase it.”

He pointed out that the new proposed number of councillors could also be double the amount on the county council at the moment – 63.

Meanwhile, the areas currently covered by the four district councils and Oxford City Council would have ‘area boards’.

These would include councillors from those parts of the county and would have powers to raise a local precept, on top of council tax.

They would also make most planning decisions, except those on ‘significant’ developments of 200 homes or more.

Decisions affecting all of Oxfordshire would be made by the whole council or by an ‘executive cabinet’, comprising of the leader, representatives from the area boards and other senior councillors.

Ian Hudspeth, Conservative leader of the county council, rejected claims that the interests of Oxford would be drowned out in a new super council.

He said: “The guarantee I would give is we will act in the best interests of residents. We will be able to take a strategic view, for instance, at what the best sites are for housing and jobs.

“There are an awful lot of people who live and work in Oxford and many of those people commute there every day – should they not also get a say on what happens there?"

Services that are duplicated would be 'streamlined' to save £20m a year

WHY is one council in charge of collecting your bins and another of running the centres where rubbish is taken?

This is the main argument for unitary councils, which run all services in their areas.

According to two studies carried out by top consultants PwC and Grant Thornton last year, a single Oxfordshire council could save £20m a year.

But this would require scrapping all six of the biggest authorities, including job losses of 400 staff and up to 180 councillors.

At the moment there are two levels of local government, with the county council running some services, like highways, school places, the fire service, libraries and waste disposal sites.

Meanwhile, district councils run waste collection, planning, social housing and collect council tax.

Savings from a super-council would largely come from removing so-called ‘duplication’ – by merging services multiple councils are running separately and others such as IT systems and call centres.

In its super council proposals, Oxfordshire County Council says the £20m savings would include:

  • £3.2m: reduction in the number of senior management posts 
  • £1.5m: reduction in the number of councillors, from about 280 overall now to between 100 and 125
  • £6.8m: combining services such as finance, ICT, legal and human resources
  • £6.6m: combining district services such as such as taxi licensing, alcohol licensing and leisure centres
  • £2.4m: reducing office space

But how would it effect devolution?

  • Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London. Councils want a Boris-style mayor for Oxfordshire. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

IT is not yet clear how the new proposals for a super-council tie in with separate plans to have an elected mayor in Oxfordshire.

All of the county’s local authorities, including Oxfordshire County Council, are currently signed up to having a mayor in principle as part of a devolution bid, which could lead to hundreds of millions of pounds in Government cash.

Under those plans, the mayor would lead a combined authority that would include all of the existing councils and have devolved powers over housing, transport and skills schemes – including some funding for further education colleges and apprenticeships.

But the county council says the new super-council for Oxfordshire could do these jobs instead.

Its proposals say: “We are confident this would be the case with either a directly elected mayor, or a strong leader and cabinet model.

“We think that a unitary council is a better and simpler option that links planning and transport more effectively, without needing another layer of local government.”

There have been disagreements between council leaders over whether the super council plans could be a ‘distraction’ that could harm the devolution bid’s chances of success.

But the county council insists the two proposals are completely separate.

And its leader, Ian Hudspeth, claimed it could even increase chances of a devolution deal: “We could go to Government with an infrastructure fund which we control and ask for match funding. The Government will be more interested in that.”

The businessman's view and the unions

THE CO-CHAIRMAN of an Oxford business group has cautiously welcomed proposals for a new Oxfordshire super-council.

Jeremy Mogford, the hotelier and spokesman for ROX, which represents independent firms in thecity, said his ‘gut reaction’ was that combining services to save money was ‘a good thing’.

He added: “But I would also liketo see an elected mayor to be brought in with real powers over thecity.

“Any new organisation set up would be pretty big and so thereis a question about whether it would actuallyimprovethings or just makethem slower.

"But it is a bit loony at the moment that you have a city council that is not looking after everything in the city – I’ll be very interested to learn more about these proposals.”

But David Ricketts, of the county council’s Unite union branch, warned job losses the changes could lead to could becausefor concern.

He said: “Over the last seven years we have seen a complete deterioration in the public sector with a lack of funding coming in.

“We’d be concerned about whether anything would be left if even more staff are cut."

What have other council leaders said?

Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council, pictured above, said: “For the people of Oxford, a unitary council would be a disaster.

"Harmonisation of services across the county would rip up the city’s approach to key services like housing and homelessness support, climate change, advice services, recycling, recreation and the arts.

“The needs of a multi-ethnic and socially mixed urban community are very different to the rural parts of the county.

“The city is also a focus for the economic vitality of the region and there is a delicate balance between its economic, social, cultural and academic sectors that needs careful management.

“These proposals fails to address these needs.

“The people of Oxford need control of their community so as to reflect their needs, not those of other parts of a very diverse county area.”

Matthew Barber, leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, pictured above, said:

“Oxfordshire County Council have always been clear that they were proposing a single Unitary Authority, which is what they have set out today. The Districts raised the debate about unitaries almost a year ago, and I have long called for the County Council to provide further details on how their proposals could work in practice, and now that they have I will consider how they would impact on local communities and public services.”

John Cotton, leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, pictured above, said:

"I've long-believed that unitary councils are better placed to deliver services than current arrangements.

"However, we need to be certain that any proposals for change are actually that - change - and not just an excuse to kick difficult decisions into the long grass."

James Mills, leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, pictured above, said:

“We only saw the County's consultation proposals this morning.

"We are working our way through this lengthy document and considering its implications for delivering the infrastructure we need - that local people and local business tell us is vital - before responding in full.

"However, I feel that the unitary debate is an unnecessary distraction at the moment.

"A devolution deal should be our main focus as this would bring in additional funding for infrastructure which would help sort existing problems such as the A40.”

Barry Wood, leader of Cherwell District Council, pictured above, said:

“The proposals put forward by Oxfordshire County Council are based upon sweeping and inaccurate information which already demonstrates the dangers of trying to apply one basic model across a varied demographic area.

"The county council makes reference to reducing services in order to make savings; at Cherwell we have protected all of our frontline services by adopting joint working and identifying opportunities for income generation through commercialisation.

"Unlike the county council, we have not increased our share of council tax for seven years and still no services have been cut here."