Unitary havoc

thumbs_downI understand the five little district councils in Oxfordshire are plotting with some neighbouring districts to have Oxfordshire County Council scrapped with some responsibilities transferred to the NHS and others to the districts which propose to form four unitary district councils.

These would be:

  • Cherwell & South Northants
  • South Oxfordshire & Vale of White Horse
  • Oxford City
  • West Oxfordshire & Cotswold

Sadly, they did not have the courtesy to share their plans with Oxfordshire County Council but it seems that Oxfordshire’s six MPs were in on the plot and are supporting the proposal. This would seem to include David Cameron who has had a hard time with the current county leader and Labour Andrew Smith who would always support a unitary Oxford City. More disappointing would be John Howell’s support, given he was a county councillor and a cabinet member when I was the Oxfordshire leader. Also Ed Vaizey who I had always thought to favour unitary counties with the scale to be strategic. Nicola Blackwood is always a bit of a loose cannon and Victoria Prentis too politically naive to understand the issues.

In 1998, Berkshire County Council was abolished and replaced by six unitary councils with some 200,000 residents each. There is general agreement that this was a retrograde step and that the resulting councils were too small to operate effectively. The Oxon districts’ proposal is similar but with some striking differences which I will attempt to explain.

County councils are large and strategic. Oxfordshire has a population approaching 700,000 and covers 1,000 square miles. It is a functional economic area with Oxford City at its heart but with a number of thriving market towns and with good communication links both within  and beyond the county.

Counties used to run schools but the academies and free schools movement has removed most of the direct management although counties still have a residual responsibility to manage the market. I support the freeing of the school system.  Indeed, I would go further with a voucher system but our national politicians have always run scared of this concept. Where I have a problem is with the role of managing the education market. This increasingly falls to the Department for Education which Michael Gove rightly nicknamed The Blob.  This reflected the reactionary and regressive nature of this government department. I think market management would have been much more effective at the county level but that is history.

The largest area of activity for counties now is social care – of children, old people and other disabled and disadvantaged groups. It is also the area of largest financial pressure. County spending is in hundreds of millions while districts is in tens of millions.  Counties have lost huge amounts of government funding creating enormous problems as demand for social care increases and funding shrinks. Districts have mainly sold off their housing stock and banked the proceeds which helps them to manage the government funding cuts better. The Oxon districts’ solution is simple; to hand over social care to the NHS! I find this mind blowing in its arrogance and blindness to democratic principles. To hand over this area of care to the monolithic NHS by removing any vestige of local democratic accountability is, in my view, an act of vandalism. I agree with uniting health and social care but the right direction would be into local democratic control, not away from it.

The next largest county area is highways. Until the Blair government, county councils also did strategic planning, creating a Structure Plan for their county which their districts’ local plans had to respect. This provided a local strategic framework that could take an overview of a functional economic area like Oxfordshire. Sadly, the ill-fated and short-lived Prescott experiment with regional planning led to the abolition of county structure plans and I think this was a seriously retrograde step to which the transfer of transport planning to four small unitary district councils will prove a disaster. Who will move forward the debate on the Oxford Green Belt? Who will work to solve the problem of the A34 which passes through three of the Oxon districts? Similarly, the A40 from Oxford to Witney?

Then we have the Fire & Rescue Service, one of the best and most cost-effective in the country. Will this be split between four little unitary districts? God forbid!  A service like this needs the breadth of a county to manage peaks and troughs without even thinking about the Fire Brigades Union which is another progress-blocking Blob.

I could go on but I won’t. Some of the proudest years of my life were to lead a strategic county council and I believe we achieved a lot during my eleven years as Leader. I have said before that local government in England is a disorganised and chaotic shambles.  It should be a breeding ground for future national politicians but, increasingly, it is in danger of becoming a supplementary income source for pensioners.

Perhaps the most fascinating comparison between the Oxon districts’ plot and the evolving national picture is George Osborne’s vision of a northern power house in which Manchester councils combine to take strategic leadership for this huge urban connurbation in the areas of economic development, housing, transport, planning and, importantly, health care while small-minded and insular Oxon districts move in the opposite direction.

i am glad to be out of it  because I would be very angry if I was still inside the loop!

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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