Cross-county unitary proposal withdrawn
Release date: 19 May 2016
The proposal to explore a cross-county Unitary Council, based upon the existing boundaries of Cotswold and West Oxfordshire District Councils, has been withdrawn.
Following discussions earlier in the year with senior government ministers and advisors, Cotswold DC was encouraged to fully explore a Unitary Council option which built on the innovative and successful joint working arrangements between the two Councils. The proposal was seen as an opportunity to deliver an even better deal for Cotswold residents.
The proposal attracted considerable interest from both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, given that it sought to remove the barriers of hitherto fixed organisational boundaries and offered new approaches of working with other public sector bodies on strategic issues. Although the proposition was recognised as “complex”, the message from government was that “anything was possible”.
In acknowledging the concerns expressed by a number of public sector organisations to the proposal, as well as current legislation which precludes two police force areas spanning one council area, the Council asked PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC), who had been commissioned to undertake a detailed independent analysis of all the options, to undertake an early evaluation of the concept - to provide clarification and also avoid unnecessary public expenditure if the proposal was considered not feasible.
PWC have now provided the Council with informal feedback which confirmed that the proposal would require changes to primary legislation and, as a result, could only be pursued within an early timeframe if it had widespread support.
The benefits of the proposal have been acknowledged. However, we accept that significant support from other public sector organisations and key stakeholders within Gloucestershire is extremely unlikely at this time; and we would also not wish to delay any proposals coming forward within Oxfordshire.
Councillor Lynden Stowe said “We are very frustrated that current legislation has not yet caught up with some of the most innovative joint working arrangements in the country. This is not the first time (nor will it be the last) where outdated and inflexible legislation is a barrier to public benefit. It is also disappointing that local public sector organisations threatened by such changes have been quick to dismiss proposals that they do not fully understand, to preserve a system that does not deliver for the benefit of local residents.
“The Council’s consistent approach has been to seek to do what is best for our residents, and the unitary proposal was a natural progression from our joint working initiatives. However, in all that we have done, we have sought to remain a valued partner within the Gloucestershire public sector area. This will not change. However, although our proposals have been seen as innovative, we are some way from achieving the support we need within Gloucestershire. As a result, we have therefore reluctantly decided to withdraw the proposal, which will clear the way for an Oxfordshire-only solution to be submitted to government in the Autumn. We have decided to announce this decision now to avoid further speculation and prevent further expenditure by public sector partners.
“We will continue to work collaboratively within Leadership Gloucestershire to produce an ambitious devolution deal, for the benefit of Gloucestershire residents and businesses. As part of this, we will continue to seek the most effective governance and delivery arrangements to join up the public sector in Gloucestershire.”
Cotswold and West Oxfordshire District Councils have confirmed that, regardless of any future changes within Oxfordshire, joint working - through the 2020 Partnership - will continue to be developed and expanded as it is considered critical in supporting good and sustainable council services, whatever its form or geographical boundaries.