PLANS which could have seen Oxfordshire's local councils merged into one super council have been taken off the table for now.

The Government had been planning to make changes to the way councils across England worked, with an official document detailing its proposals, called a white paper, originally due for release this September.

Oxfordshire has what is called a 'two-tier' system of local councils, where Oxfordshire County Council looks after highways, education, social care, and libraries; while district councils like Oxford City Council look after housing, planning and collecting the bins.

This could have all been replaced by one single authority under the most drastic scenario of the Government's plans.

There was a furore over this in the summer, with some of Oxfordshire's district councils revolting against the county council's stance in favour of mergers.

But a spokesman for the Government department which oversees councils has now said any plans for mergers have been delayed because of the pandemic.

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The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government spokesman said the pandemic had 'rightly necessitated resources across Whitehall and in local government being re-allocated to tackling Covid-19'.

They added that 'this must be Whitehall’s and town hall’s number one priority at present'.

Only three areas of England are currently set to go ahead with mergers: Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and Somerset.

This is because those councils had already started drawing up plans for mergers on their own.

The MHCLG spokesman encouraged other councils to create their own plans to merge as well.

They said: "Changes to local authority structures should be led by councils and their residents. Any proposal for change will need to meet our clear criteria, improve services, enhance accountability and be financially sustainable."

Oxford Mail:

Oxford Town Hall. Picture: Ed Nix

Reacting to the announcement of delays to the Government's plans, Oxfordshire County Council's leader Ian Hudspeth said his council had tried to pre-empt the Government's mergers by setting out its own reform options.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers which was commissioned by the county in the summer revealed how Oxfordshire's councils could be merged into one, or two authorities, or closer work between existing councils could take place.

Mr Hudspeth said: "This was something being discussed during the summer and one of the aims of that was to influence the white paper rather than having reform done to us in Oxfordshire.

"At some stage they will be developing it, and I always think it is best to try to determine what you want rather than having it done to you."

Leaders from some of Oxfordshire's district councils welcomed the decision to delay council reform.

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Oxford City Council's Labour leader Susan Brown said: "It is a shame it has taken quite so long to realise it is an inappropriate time to be doing this.

"What local councils need to be doing is what we have been trying to do, which is make sure our local residents are being looked after appropriately and measures are in place to keep them safe in this period."

In the summer, Ms Brown had similarly said plans to go ahead with mergers had come at the wrong time.

And Emily Smith, Lib Dem leader of Vale of White Horse District Council said: "I have been opposing it based on the fact that it is the wrong time.

"The Vale's position is we are open to exploring this but we have not said what sort of future council size we would like."

It is unclear when the Government now plans to publish its white paper on English devolution.