Reg Little reports on big changes to the way we are governed locally introduced this week

In Oxford Town Hall it has been christened 'Big Bang Day'. Nobody is yet sure where all the pieces are going to fall or who will survive it, but all are agreed that the city is witnessing a seismic shif in local democracy.

On Monday, the full city council met tidy up unfinished business and draw a line under local government as we have known it in Oxford for decades.

Council committees were laid to rest. A new all-powerful 'cabinet' came into being and now new parliaments will suddenly begin to spring up across the city.

The winds of change blowing through the town hall would be worrying enough at the best of times, with precious few people very clear about how the new-look council is going to work. But the best of times, these are certainly not, with the city council looking to shed another 75 jobs and being forced to sell off prime council properties to stave off bankruptcy.

A succession of senior officers have left as part of the biggest management shake-up seen for years. Now the council has been warned that it could be stripped of its planning powers unless planning applications are dealt with more quickly, and face the humiliation of handing over responsibility to a neighbouring council.

Cynics might say that throwing the committee system overboard next week looks perilously like rearranging crew working rotas on the Titanic after the iceberg had been hit. After all, spending £350,000 on reorganisation with the council running at a deficit of between £2.5m and £4m while services crumble will hardly ease fears that things are spiralling out of control.

The council can fairly argue that the "modernisation" has been forced on it by the Government, with every other council in the country having to embark on a similar exercise. Some, like the city council's deputy leader, Mr Paul Ingram - Green group leader - believe that it might well prove "the saving of the council" - once, that is, everybody figures out how it is actually going to work.

From 9am on Wednesday, Oxford City Council has effectively been run by an executive board. Councillors were uneasy about the word cabinet because it implied a small group of people running the council. But, whatever it is called, that is exactly the position that we will have.

For, make no mistake, the ten councillors on the executive are making the decisions on the day-to-day operation of the council. (Their extra responsibility is reflected with an additional £30,000 allowance payment shared between them.)

One big difference between Oxford and other councils like West Oxfordshire and Cherwell district councils is that three parties - the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Labour - all have seats on the executive board. All sides say they hope the new system will put an end to councillors "opposing for the sake of opposing". But there will be no collective responsibility.

Mr Ingram said: "Nobody is expecting the three parties to accept every agreed policy as their own. They may disagree and continue to say so publicly, but they would be expected to accept it as the agreed policy of the council."

The Liberal Democrat leader of the council, Corrinna Redman, is also looking forward to fewer political punch-ups in such troubled times: "I do hope that we will be able to move away from the confrontational ways of working that have characterised the city council in the past.

"There are a lot of financial issues that Labour know are going to have to be addressed. They know we are living on borrowed time."

Executive members are effectively like ministers, with control of their own departments (although Labour councillors are accepting no portfolios).

Labour group leader, Alex Hollingsworth, thinks it will make it far easier to see who is responsible for implementing a policy - and who to blame if things go wrong.

He said: "Under the committee system, you had powerful committee chairmen who could take a lot of decisions behind the scenes and then present them for rubbing stamping at committee. When things went wrong, they didn't have to take responsibility for it."

He sees it as the job of the four Labour members on the executive board to hold the ruling Liberal Democrat-Green Party administration "to account".

But isn't that the job of the scrutiny committees that have been set up? Mr Hollingsworth thinks the three scrutiny committees should be examining policies from a technical, rather than a political point of view. Most councillors would disagree.

There is even more uncertainty about the future role of the full council, which will meet every eight weeks. Mr Hollingsworth frankly admits: "That is the big unknown. I'm not sure how it will work out. The council has the power to ask the executive to think again. But what then happens if the executive ignores it?"

The council has the power to sack the executive, but this can be regarded "as the nuclear option" - the equivalent of the MEPs sacking the European Commission.

But Mr Hollingsworth will tell you that, while the executive looks after the day-to-day running of the council, it is the full council that should decide on all the big matters of principle.

Perhaps, the biggest change of all, however, is happening outside the town hall, with the creation of five (soon to be six from next May) local parliaments/area committees.

A pilot parliament was created in East Oxford last year, attracting remarkable attendances of up to 200 to early meetings. Encouraged by the enthusiastic public participation, the city council is going on to create similar bodies to serve North Oxford; Marston and Headington; Blackbird Leys, Littlemore and Iffley; Central West and South Oxford.

The parliaments/area committees (it is left to each area to decide what to call their assemblies) will be given full powers over a range of services and activities.

Decisions relating to planning, parks and open spaces, community centres and smaller leisure sites such as children's playgrounds are all being handed over to the area committees, who will have their own budgets.

It should all be viewed as a fresh start, says Mrs Redman: "I think one thing the reorganisation helps us to do is to emphasise the fact that we are trying to make huge changes: changes to the way we set budgets, changes to the whole culture of this council.

"To be able to sweep away the old committee system and start afresh with a new structure, which will not only give us a chance to make decisions more effectively, but encourage greater participation is an opportunity for us."

Yet the spectre at the feast remains. Campaigners for an elected Mayor of Oxford say they are well on the way towards forcing a local referendum on the issue.

DEMOX (Democratically Elected Mayor for Oxford), led by the former Lord Mayor, John Power, and the ex-city council leader,Stan Taylor, has collected nearly 4,000 signatures, more than half the total they need to trigger a referendum on the issue.

The council has already had to put aside £50,000 to meet the cost of a referendum that could yet see the 'Big Bang' spiralling towards an almighty black hole.