Coxit: A Cotswold-West Oxfordshire union?

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In case ‘Brexit’ was too exciting… 

‘Coxit’ may sound like a profanity you utter when you stub your toe, but it actually refers to a proposal for Cotswold District Council to form a new unitary authority with West Oxfordshire District Council, which, in a local government sense, would mean leaving Gloucestershire.

Plans are afoot to replace the current two-tier local government system in Oxfordshire (i.e. Oxfordshire County Council sitting above 5 district councils) with a single tier, comprised of various smaller unitary authorities, with no Oxfordshire County Council. The new unitary authorities would be:

  • Southern Oxfordshire Unitary Authority, replacing Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire District Councils;
  • Oxford City Unitary Authority, replacing Oxford City Council;
  • West Oxfordshire (Cotswold) Unitary Authority, replacing West Oxfordshire District Council and Cotswold District Council;
  • Cherwell (South Northants) Unitary Authority, replacing Cherwell District Council and South Northamptonshire Council. 

To the conspiratorially minded it could seem that the impetus for devolving power to the district councils comes from David Cameron, whose Witney constituency shares the same boundaries as West Oxfordshire District Council. In recent months there has been a terse exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the Conservative Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, over budget cuts needed in Oxfordshire.

David Cameron ended one of the letters by noting the challenging impact of Oxfordshire’s ageing population, citing the integration between health and social care services in Greater Manchester and elderly care integration in Cambridgeshire as pilot programmes developed to counter these effects. He then concluded, “as part of any devolution deal, such an initiative could potentially be available to Oxfordshire, provided there was reassurance that the county was taking a constructive approach to protecting frontline services.”

Cllr Hudspeth’s reply rebutted Cameron’s arguments, stating that cuts were already topping £600m. He pointed out to the Prime Minister that Oxfordshire is now in the bottom quarter of English county councils as regards back office expenditure and suggested that the Prime Minister was not aware of the true extent of Whitehall’s cuts.

With Oxfordshire County Council apparently not taking a “constructive approach” the decision seems to have been taken to instead devolve powers down to district level. The districts appear to be more willing to tow the government’s line over new forms of public service delivery and commissioning.

Cllr Matthew Barber, leader of Vale of White Horse District Council, has stated he does not “support a ‘lift, shift and divide’ in terms of County Council services as this would simply move financial burdens from one organisation to another. As districts we have spent the past years delivering increasing efficiencies, transforming our services, creating shared teams, adopting flexible structures and a commercial approach. Simply dividing up county council services would not allow us to achieve the transformation needed.” Similarly, leader of Cotswold District Council, Cllr Lynden Stowe has commented, “for several years Cotswold and West Oxfordshire councils have shared a Chief Executive and management team. We've joined up departments and saved millions of pounds

This is an interesting area of politics as there are various interrelated motivations for devolution, ranging from the desire to cut public expenditure, different ideas as to how public services should be delivered and the Conservative’s ‘localism’ agenda. Therefore, on the off-chance that the ‘Brexit’ debate doesn’t quench your thirst for esoteric arguments about governmental structures, it may be worth keeping an eye on ‘Coxit’!