POLITICAL leaders across Oxfordshire have rubbished a report setting out options for how councils could be merged together.

Yesterday, a report commissioned by the Tory-run Oxfordshire County Council and Cherwell District Council was published, setting out three 'viable' solutions for how local government in the county might be changed in the future.

The government is set to publish a white paper on devolving more power to English regions in the autumn, which is said to include a reshuffle of councils.

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This could include mergers for Oxfordshire's two-tier system of councils: there is currently a county council which looks after education, social care and highways; while district councils look after bins, housing provision, and leisure.

Oxfordshire County Council's Conservative Leader Ian Hudspeth said the report, written by PricewaterhouseCoopers and entitled 'Local Government Reform in Oxfordshire', was 'food for thought' in advance of the government's proposals.

Oxford Mail:

Ian Hudspeth

But leaders from across the districts have said the proposals are 'rushed and flawed' and questioned the timing of the report as well as the implications that a single council covering all of Oxfordshire would have for local democracy.

The PwC report is billed as an assessment by 'independent experts' in the same press release sent out by both Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire County Council.

It cost the two councils, which share back office staff, £35k to commission the consulting firm to write it.

In the report, PwC said that all councils in the UK are facing tighter and tighter budget margins each year as a result of austerity cuts and more recently Covid 19.

The report said: "It is now widely acknowledged that given the national and regional pressures... retaining the status quo is not an option, so alternatives need to be explored."

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It sets out three potential ways Oxfordshire's councils could be changed.

The first is closer collaboration between existing councils: sharing resources and avoiding duplication; touted to cost £21m and to save £15.5m a year.

The second is to get rid of all the councils and replace them with a single council covering all of Oxfordshire and providing all council services.

This is estimated to cost £28m in the report, and save £69m a year.

The third and final option is to get rid of all the councils and replace them with two councils, splitting Oxfordshire into two areas of equal population.

But political leaders of all parties have questioned the report's timing and accuracy.

Oxford Mail:

Susan Brown.

Susan Brown, Labour leader of Oxford City Council said: “We are in the midst of a pandemic which has caused a national economic crisis. Now is not the time for major restructuring of local government.

“This report looks rushed and flawed, before the Government has set out its policy on this. It gives attention-grabbing financial forecasts without looking at the delivery of essential services. The savings assessments are flawed, un-evidenced and contradict other reports – including by PwC. "

Some of the criticisms levelled against the report are that it uses incorrect estimates on population growth, failing to take into account the planned population growth through building homes in Oxfordshire; and that it does not take into account extra council spending during the pandemic.

James Mills, Conservative leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, was concerned that merging councils into a single large authority would leave residents of Oxfordshire feeling disenfranchised.

He said: “Local government should be local. It has to be much more than an agent for the Central Government and needs to be accountable to local residents. We need to make sure that any changes in local government benefits the people of West Oxfordshire.

"I just can’t see that being part of a mega council with 800,000-plus residents can be in the interests of residents in West Oxfordshire. That would be a population larger than three EU countries. Accountability to residents has to be at the heart of any proposals for reorganisation."

Oxford Mail:

James Mills, who is standing down from his role as leader at WODC in October.

Similar concerns were raised by the Lib Dem leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, Sue Cooper, and Debby Hallet, the Lib Dem deputy leader of Vale of White Horse District Council.

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But Barry Wood, the Conservative leader of Cherwell District Council, defended the report.

He said: “We know that discussions about local government reform are not always welcome as they can distract from the core mission of councils, who work tirelessly for the benefit of residents.

“However, we have a duty to carefully prepare for and respond to the reform process that will be initiated by the white paper."

This is not the first time the idea of merging Oxfordshire's councils has been discussed.

It was almost debated earlier this year in preparation for the Government's white paper.

Before that, it was proposed in 2017 by Oxfordshire County Council, with wide-ranging opposition from the districts.