Ian Hudspeth, Liz Brighouse, Richard Webber and David Williams

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Leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green groups on Oxfordshire County Council

Last week the four districts and Oxford City Council announced plans to create four ‘quasi-unitary’ authorities for Oxfordshire, with bits of Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire bolted on.

The city would have its own council, with three other councils made up of pairs of districts.

This announcement came as the ink was barely dry on a devolution bid to government on behalf of all the county’s councils, which could have coordinated £6.6bn investment in infrastructure and put the control of £1.3bn health and care budgets in the hands of the people of Oxfordshire.

Now, before Government has even responded to the first proposal, a new is plan on the table.

The press release announcing this new proposal was headlined ‘Council leaders propose simplification of local government to support a devolution deal for Oxfordshire’.

This ‘simplification’ would involve: five NHS clinical commissioning groups; three police forces and three police and crime commissioners; four local enterprise partnerships (LEPs); three highway authorities; three fire and rescue services, and three local resilience forums with responsibility for emergency planning.

Despite being described as a unitary bid to create single councils for each area, this proposal also retains two layers of local government in the form of four ‘quasi-unitary’ councils with a ‘combined authority’ quango covering three counties laid on top.

We are still unclear about which of the above bodies were involved in developing these proposals, or were even aware of them. The Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group’s logo was included on the website, and then removed within a day. The CCG in Gloucestershire is opposed to the plan.

OxLEP – a key partner in the original bid – was not aware of the new proposal until they saw the press release, and the LEP in Gloucestershire has also come out against the proposal.

To be clear, OCC was not involved in developing these quasi-unitary proposals, despite being responsible for 80 per cent of local government spending in Oxfordshire. Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire councils were also not aware of proposals to carve off parts of their county.

However these proposals have revealed one point of strong agreement – the structure of local government in Oxfordshire needs to change to meet future financial challenges and rising demand for children and adult social care.

We are writing as the political group leaders of OCC because we believe that for reasons of history, geography and practicality, we should be looking for a ‘one Oxfordshire’ approach.

Like the backers of the new proposal, we are all convinced that the unitary model – a single council serving an area – makes most sense. But they have to be real unitaries, not two layers of local government by another name.

The proposal to create a combined authority quango simply replaces the county council, covering a bigger area and with less democratic accountability. Under this proposal, responsibility for adult social care, along with council tax payers’ money to pay for it, would be handed to the NHS.

Joining up health and social care makes a lot of sense and that project is well under way in Oxfordshire. But handing over powers and budgets requires a proper debate to understand the implications.

Such an important decision cannot be done on the basis of a political deal and a press release.

We need real openness and proper information about the implications of each option for Oxfordshire.

Today we are inviting all stakeholders to work together in a jointly agreed process to develop a business case for each of the options, including a single council for Oxfordshire and the four quasi-unitary option put forward by the districts.

We will all need to agree the criteria, but efficiency, effectiveness and democratic accountability must be key.

Then, once they are in full command of the facts, the public can make up their own minds about the most efficient and effective way to deliver public services for Oxfordshire. Let the people decide.