Oxford is often thought to be a bastion of privilege, but in truth what is more distinctive of Oxford is inequality. As well as being the home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities, it is also home to both some of the most affluent areas of the country and some of the most deprived areas. A short bus ride away from the grandeur of the University are Blackbird Leys, Barton, and Rose Hill – names perhaps familiar to students, possibly glimpsed on buses slowly making their way down the High Street. They are three of the most deprived areas of Oxford, and they are the home to many of Oxford’s nearly 7,000 children who live in poverty.
Oxford’s children have been making the news in the last year. Or more exactly, the removal of vital services for children has been making the news. To the dismay of even David Cameron’s mother, Oxfordshire County Council has cut its funding for Oxfordshire’s 44 children’s centres.
Donnington Doorstep, a children’s centre in south east Oxford, is one such centre that is seeing its funding cut. It used to offer a drop-in service 6 days a week, providing parents and families with support, advice, and even home-cooked meals. Due to County Council cuts, at the end of January it was forced to reduce its drop-in service to just Wednesday mornings. Alex Mann, a mother of two young sons and who has a paralysed arm, told the Oxford Mail “I really do not know what I am going to do, there is nowhere else for me to go. The future is that I will be trapped at home with my arm in agony. My kids absolutely love [Donnington Doorstep], it is like a second home to them.”
As well as slashing children’s centre budgets, Oxfordshire’s Conservative-led County Council is now removing its funding for homelessness services. Julian Housing, which manages roughly 150 beds for homeless people, may well have to close its doors in 2018. In addition to this is the mess the County Council finds itself in as a result of the failures of privatisation and botched contracts with companies like Carillion and Skanska. This mismanagement has resulted in massive financial shortfalls, with services costing more and delivering less.
Oxfordshire County Council claim that the proposal would save money. In reality, it’s little more than a power grab, an attempt by the County Council to use the proceeds from better managed councils to plug their own gaps.
It is against this background that Oxfordshire County Council have proposed to create a single unitary authority for the whole of Oxfordshire, a proposal they’re calling ‘One Oxfordshire’. This proposal would see the abolition of Oxfordshire’s district councils, including Oxford City Council. Replacing them would be a single unitary authority, which would have power over all areas of local government.
Oxfordshire County Council claim that the proposal would save money. In reality, it’s little more than a power grab, an attempt by the County Council to use the proceeds from better managed councils to plug their own gaps. This is why it’s opposed not only by the Labour-led Oxford City Council, but also by the Conservative-led West Oxfordshire and Cherwell district councils.
But the cost of the proposal would most significantly be borne by Oxford’s residents. Like the County Council, the new Oxfordshire-wide unitary authority would likely be Conservative-led, meaning that we would be saying goodbye to the progressive Oxford City Council, and along with it 7,800 council homes (the only council houses not sold off in the county), £61 million invested in new affordable housing, protected funding for homelessness services, an Oxford Living Wage for all council staff and contractors, and an ethical investment policy. In its place would be a council that asset strips, reduces regulation, and lowers wages.
But it’s not just the quality of local government that’s at stake, it’s also the democracy of local government: instead of local services being under control of the city’s residents, they would be under control of rural Oxfordshire. These very different demographic groups want different things from their councils – every district council in Oxfordshire is Conservative-led (like the County Council) except the City Council, where not one of the 48 councillors is a Conservative.
‘One Oxfordshire’ is an attempt to gerrymander local government in the interests of the Conservative-led County Council. It’s their attempt to save themselves from the blushes of their mismanagement, with the people of Oxford paying the price. After seven years of austerity devastating local government, the Conservatives have already imposed gross hardships onto the people of Oxford. Having done so much damage already, we must not allow them to do more.