Oxford city’s unitary bid fails

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2007

Bad news here in Oxford, following the Government’s announcement today that the City Council has failed in its bid for unitary status, which would have seen it become responsible for all local government services.

Sixteen local authorities have been successful in being short-listed, including two cities: Norwich and Exeter. But not us.

There’s a tendency among politicians to get obsessed with structures and institutions – there’s a danger we forget the public doesn’t really care about who delivers the services, only that they are delivered well. However, there is no doubt that two-tier local government in Oxford hampers accountability.

My residents – quite understandably – do not see the distinction between the City and County. To them, we are simply ‘the Council’, and arguments about which local authority is responsible for which services is seen as buck-passing (which it sometimes is).

Oxford, with some 140,000 residents, is large but compact enough to have made a success of being a unitary authority (which can have populations as small as 30,000). It has a distinctive, vibrant culture. Only in a centralised state like the UK would this city be considered ‘unsustainable’. But local government is the victim of central government’s mantra that big is – if not beautiful – then at least economic.

It is becoming clear that Labour now wants district councils to wither on the vine. That is the thrust behind the Government’s jargon-heavy imperative in today’s press release:

In remaining two-tier areas Government expects all councils to pursue new working arrangements to achieve the same level of improvement and efficiency gains as we expect the new unitaries will be achieving.

‘New working arrangements’ is of course code for increasing absorption of the five Oxfordshire district councils into the super-fiefdom that is the County Council, dominated by Tories who are entirely without representation in the city.

And I am bound to say it says little for the lobbying skills of Oxford East’s Labour MP, Andrew Smith, that the city has not made it onto the Government’s little list. Local Labour activists had been increasingly confident in recent weeks that Mr Smith would go to Whitehall and deliver. Alas not.

Today, then, is a day of disappointment. Tomorrow, we must all pick ourselves up, and start working on making a success of the poor hand dealt to us by the Government.

Which is an experience those of us who’ve spent a few years on local councils are getting increasingly accustomed to.