COMMENT: Single council must operate in interests of everyone

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First published in News

REPLACING the ‘old’ two-tier system of county and district councils is certainly a debate worth having in the medium term.

It can be reasonably argued that unitary authorities delivering all the council services rather than the current set-up might be more streamlined and economical.

But among all the arguments, there has to be only one deciding point: will residents and taxpayers get a better deal and better services?

Today we report that the issue is raising its head once again, with Oxford City Council already eyeing up its future in a new local government system that would sweep away Oxfordshire County Council.

City council leader Bob Price envisages the South and Vale, West Oxfordshire and Cotswold, and Cherwell and South Northamptonshire merging as well.

County leader Ian Hudspeth admits he has thought about changes to unitary status as well, but it is not a pressing matter for him.

You can be sure, though, his vision of a unitary system will not be allied to Mr Price’s eradication of the county council.

And there lies the problem. Who is willing to be erased out of existence, even if it could be proved the new system would be demonstrably better?

Politics will play a huge part as well, especially when you remember that Oxford remains a red island in a sea of blue on both the Parliamentary and local government maps.

Each side would be sincere in their belief they are best-placed to deliver improvements, but recent history tells us what is promised early on in this process is not guaranteed as the final outcome.

Look at neighbouring Berkshire in the mid-90s.

One of the options was replacing the county council and six districts with three or four unitary councils, the reasoning being that the new authorities would be about the right size to operate properly.

Political wrangling meant six unitaries emerged on the old district borders, with what is geographically recognised as Reading still split between three councils.

This has led to the bizarre situation that some children live in one area yet their school – a couple of streets away – is run by a completely different authority.

If Oxfordshire is to change, that is the type of nonsense that needs to be avoided.

Let’s look at change, certainly. But not change for change’s sake.

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