DevComms director Charles Bushe reports the outcome of an Oxfordshire County Council meeting which didn’t turn out as fiery as expected – but could still end up proving highly significant.

In the end, Oxfordshire County Council’s (OCC) full council meeting last week ended up being less about election delay, as initially suspected, and more about local government reorganisation in the county.

Ahead of the meeting, there had been public criticism from a number of leading politicians around Oxfordshire about a motion proposed by Conservative OCC leader, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, which raised the possibility of local government reorganisation but also suggested delaying local elections by a year, from 2021 to 2022.

The purported logic was to prevent the need for two elections in two years, in light of a much-anticipated White Paper from central Government on local government reorganisation.

The possibility of an election delay initially stole the headlines as, unsurprisingly, Labour and Liberal Democrat members across the county, from South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse and Oxford City councils amongst others, vocally criticised this proposal as being anti-democratic.

What actually transpired at the meeting was an amended motion, put forward by the leader of the opposition, Cllr Liz Brighouse (Lab), which removed all reference to elections.

Cllr Hudspeth was unable to attend the meeting and so Cllr Judy Heathcote (Con), deputy leader, moved the amended motion which stated that the upcoming White Paper presents an opportunity to consider how public services can best be provided across the county and that the Secretary of State should ‘explore all options for a new future for Oxfordshire’.

Cllr Heathcote stated that the current two-tier format is no longer workable, or financially sustainable, and that the Covid-19 crisis had proved the ‘power and ability’ of the wider area to work together.

Cllr Brighouse said it would be ‘a democratic mistake’ to alter local government arrangements whilst recovering from a pandemic, but recognised that a discussion is required.

Cllr Emily Smith (OCC member and leader of Vale of White Horse, (Lib Dem) echoed the views of Cllr Brighouse, whilst many other members across the political spectrum also stated their support for the motion, with very few dissenting voices. The motion was unanimously agreed.

It seems therefore that, although Cllr Turnbull (Lab) chose to refer to the formerly proposed election delay as a ‘Trojan Horse’, the Conservatives (or at least Cllr Hudspeth) on this occasion chose to rein in their ambitions.

Whether or not the option of an election delay will again rear its head remains to be seen, but this meeting of OCC made clear that there is at least support for a discussion around local government arrangements in Oxfordshire.

Even more remarkable was that this support for the motion, and this recognition of the need for a broader conversation about local governance, came from all corners of the county and from across all political divides.  

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