AN 'EXTRAORDINARY' bid by the leader of Oxfordshire County Council to postpone next year's local elections another year has been described as ‘unacceptable’ for local democracy.

Tory council leader Ian Hudspeth will propose at a meeting next Tuesday that local elections due to be held next year should be pushed back again until 2022.

Mr Hudspeth has made his bid as the Government looks at the possibility of restructuring local authorities, which could even see Oxfordshire's district councils and county council scrapped and replaced by one single council.

Leaders from other political parties, and Oxfordshire’s district councils, have loudly criticised the bid to delay elections, warning it would be 'bad for democracy'.

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Local elections for Oxford City Council, and West Oxfordshire and Cherwell district councils have already been delayed from this May until next year.

Mr Hudspeth’s motion also takes into account that the Government is thinking about shaking up the way councils are run.

This might include scrapping Oxfordshire’s district councils, which look after bin collections and housing in their areas.

The county, which currently looks after highways, education and social care across Oxfordshire, could also be scrapped.

Instead, all services might be run by a single large authority.

In the motion, Mr Hudspeth says council staff across Oxfordshire have worked hard during the Covid-19 pandemic, but will also acknowledge the huge funding shortfalls local authorities across the UK are facing.

It adds: “Our aims are clear: safeguard public services in the future, support a vibrant local democracy and ensure a strong economy.”

Speaking to the Oxford Mail, Mr Hudspeth denied the move to delay elections was politically motivated.

In 2019, the Conservatives lost control of two Oxfordshire district councils: Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire, which are now ruled by a Lib Dem majority and a Lib Dem-Green coalition respectively.

Mr Hudspeth said: “This is a genuine attempt to have an open and honest discussion with everyone across Oxfordshire.

“I am always happy to have elections but I don’t want to have two of them within 12 months of one another.”

Oxford Mail:

Ian Hudspeth

Mr Hudspeth explained that if a Government white paper setting out changes to councils did include a reorganisation of Oxfordshire, then councils might have to hold elections once in 2021 and again in 2022 if they changes came into force that quickly.

The Government is planning to publish a white paper later this year on English devolution, which housing minister Simon Clarke has said will ‘unlock devolution’ across the nation.

Some of the measures which could be on the table include scrapping ‘two-tier’ council areas like in Oxfordshire, with its county and district councils, and replacing them with a single council.

Mr Hudspeth added that while early signs from government had indicated they wanted to scrap district councils, there was a chance for councils to influence what the final plans would be.

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The Oxfordshire leader also sits as a member of the Local Government Association, a body which represents councils across the UK.

He said he had no knowledge of other councils proposing to delay their 2021 elections in the same way.

The Labour leader of Oxford City Council, Susan Brown, said she thought the idea of postponing the county council elections was ‘quite extraordinary’ and added that the period following lockdown was ‘not the time’ for the Government to be considering changes to how local councils worked.

Oxford Mail:

Susan Brown. Picture: Ed Nix

Ms Brown also said that the city council had to prioritise its work to help the homeless, restart the economy after lockdown, and support the vulnerable with its network of hubs.

She added: “There is an enormous amount to do over the coming months and Oxford’s residents and businesses are depending on us to focus on working with others to deliver. So, while we are always ready to discuss Oxfordshire’s future, that cannot be allowed to get in the way of getting things done.”

A group of senior Liberal Democrat councillors have written a letter to the Oxford Mail to express their concern on the proposed delay.

They include Emily Smith, the leader of Vale of White Horse District Council; Richard Webber, Oxfordshire County Council’s Lib Dem group leader; Andrew Gant, who leads the political party’s Oxford City Council group; Sue Cooper, the leader of South Oxfordshire District Council; Andrew Graham, of West Oxfordshire Liberal Democrat group; and Katherine Tyson, of Cherwell Liberal Democrat group.

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In it they say: “To delay elections for yet another year, preventing hundreds of thousands of voters in Oxfordshire from having a say over who represents them, is unacceptable.

“Our councils are on the front line of the Covid-19 response and have a key role in supporting the local economy as well as providing essential services for residents. It is vital that voters are allowed to choose who is making decisions that will affect us all during these uncertain times.”

Robin Bennett, the Green Party group leader on South Oxfordshire District Council said that local government changes could be used to strengthen local democracy.

But he added: “This transparent attempt to stifle democracy is not the right way to go about it. Democracy delayed is democracy denied.”