One Oxfordshire: Proposals for a new Unitary Council
Watchfield Parish Council would like to offer the following comments after discussing the proposals at a full council meeting on February 21st, 2017.
The proposals lack the detail required to reach a judgement in many areas and we have extreme concerns on the impact on our rural communities. The brief response period and very sparse online questionnaire do not, in our opinion, constitute a proper consultation on this proposal. Below we have outlined some of those areas of concern but this list is by no means exhaustive.
- The timescale for discussion is far too short and driven solely by purdah requirements. Proposals feel rushed, incomplete and nebulous. We are being asked to comment on broad brushstroke ideas without sufficient detail or definition merely to fit the deadlines of 27th March for purdah and May 4th for elections.
- The document sets out how the new proposal will enable now disparate offices to liaise more closely on subjects, such as planning. It must be pointed out that OCC has had the opportunity to comment and feed into planning decisions through the One Voice mechanism for some considerable time but has, almost universally, failed to do so with any consistency. Why should we believe a combined authority would be any more joined up in its thinking?
- The proposal hinges on councillors acting at both local and strategic levels. If councillors are then expected to be across all areas of council responsibility and to be able to effectively influence strategic decisions as well as respond to local concerns, they will need to be full time councillors and recompensed as such. Relying on well-meaning part-time, albeit community minded, volunteers will result in a very poor service for most residents if their councillor is to be the main conduit for council and local business. There is also no definition for accountability. If a councillor proves incompetent for their area, the only option remains deselection at election time. Meanwhile, a whole cohort of parishes will be unrepresented at strategic and local levels. The size of the proposed wards is also of concern. If it is merely on population size, rural communities will, again, lose out. Some District boundaries currently mean councillors represent 12 parishes. Although the population may be comparable, each parish may have very different requirements and concerns meaning councillors have 12 times the potential workload of a denser area of population. Comparing proposals to arrangements in Wiltshire and Cornwall is meaningless, given the composition of the county.
- The timescale for change seems incredibly short, especially when coupled with the timetable for Brexit. The worst possible scenario would be that there is an interim merger of all council offices with existing officers. Some OCC and District offices and officers are not fit for purpose and indeed, there should be a rethink of whether some offices are an effective use of council resources. Please do not make the mistake that because existing personnel have experience in an area they are effective. Use the opportunity to think creatively and excluded entrenched, outmoded, ineffective and discriminatory practices and personnel.
- The structure for area boards has the potential to become a de facto two-tier bureaucracy given the proposal for fund-raising powers and split planning responsibility, dependent on size of development. Also, if area boards are centred around population dense areas, funding from the boards will inevitably be funnelled towards these areas rather than equally distributed towards the rural communities. Merely funding centralised services will fail the many, many residents who cannot access these facilities.
- The proposed streamlining of planning lacks detail. It implies greater ability to fund Oxfordshire-wide infrastructure commitments but does not mention the current restriction of a maximum of 5 developments contributing to a project. Woolly statements such a ‘the potential for a portion of New Homes Bonus to be devolved’ immediately ring alarm bells and could equally mean developer contributions will not be allocated to the area impacted by the new housing. The proposals, although Oxfordshire-wide, appear insular in that there is little or no mention of cross border concerns, for example, the local Oxfordshire impact of 8000 houses on Swindon Eastern development. There is also no consideration of the obligation to consider unmet housing need across county borders. Peripheral rural communities are once again ignored. If the authority is to become county-wide, will the unmet housing needs of the current districts be spread across the whole area or still restricted to the overspill locations? Local Plans must absolutely be preserved whilst a new plan evolves. We cannot again be left in the position of free-for-all speculative development with no controls. The SHMA needs to be rethought in terms of recent developments in politics and economy. The process of deciding the figures through an unelected and unaccountable body is not acceptable.
- The proposals for greater involvement of parish councils are concerning. We have all had experience of being ‘invited’ to take on higher council services with help and funding that would have been spent centrally, only to have the funding and help withdrawn almost immediately leaving parishes to pick up the tab as well as the workload. Again, rural parishes who have elected not to take on additional roles have had their services cut anyway leaving the choice of no service or pay for it locally. Is the proposal for localism actually a method for spending resources on fewer and fewer services in fewer and fewer centralised locations, then blaming parishes for not ‘choosing’ to take on the extra responsibilities? If OALC is to be the main support network for parish councils, it needs to be far more effective and proactive than at present.
- Public protection is an area that currently seems to be a paper exercise rather than one based on action. The existing council system is woefully inadequate and ineffective and should be rethought rather than brought across to the new council. The current emergency service input into planning needs not only to be expanded but the recommendations adhered to with, possibly, a statutory veto. Community resilience is not understood at higher council levels who have no idea what parishes do within their own communities to enhance resilience. There needs to be a realistic consideration of local environmental issues that contribute to emergency situations and resilience, such as surface water flooding which is not recorded by the Environment Agency.
- The commitment to tackling social deprivation should not solely focus on urban areas. The cumulative reduction in services to rural communities has led to social isolation, an inability to access health and social care, leisure services and employment. Planning should ensure rural residents have access to services, transport links and local employment. Do not continue to add rural housing where the services and facilities are already over-stretched or non-existent. The existence of a school or doctor’s surgery does not mean there is capacity for expansion. Social housing quotas should be proportionate to local need and local access to services.
- The financial statements make no mention of the current positions of the County Council and District councils. It appears that more prudent councils will bail out the more profligate ones. Without a full breakdown of the current financial positions, how can we make a judgement as to whether we consider your proposed savings are realistic or achievable? The commitment to local funding equating to local spending is also predicated on an urban population where business rates can drive revenue. However, rural communities, some with no businesses, will, again, lose out. There is no indication that proposed savings will be used to reinstate ‘lost’ services and we were not reassured by the verbal statement that services would ‘probably not get worse’ for rural communities but were unlikely to improve.
Although the principle of a single tier authority is generally accepted to have the potential to address some of the shortfalls with the current system, the proposals are raising many concerns, particularly for rural communities.