Re-structuring Oxfordshire

Following the decision on 26 January by Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet to agree swingeing and immoral cuts to voluntary and community sector services, including withdrawal of funding for day centres for older people, community bus services and children’s centres, Enough is Enough has continued to voice concerns and meet with key people in the County. What has become clear is that the current status quo for the delivery of public sector funded services is not sustainable; despite 30% cuts in funding and delivery over 10 years, we still have six first and second tier councils, and 234 parish councils, 15 town councils and 68 parish meetings in Oxfordshire. That’s a lot of governance for a decreasing amount of direct delivery. But what is less clear is the route needed to enable a future that provides for the current demand for public efficiency (savings) coupled with delivering quality (and quantity of) services for a population, which has been used to the paternal arms of councils over many years.

However, there does seem to be some obvious fruit to pick, even if that fruit could not be described as low-hanging.

The first go at a potential re-structure is integration; for so long the holy grail of social and health care; much examined and vaunted as the way forward. Examples from abroad are held up as exemplars, but mostly they miss the point entirely. Sweden for example didn’t have to weld a national institution (brand NHS) to a diverse social care sector in all its glorious private, independent and voluntary facets. Let’s face it, if you were going to design a future social and health care system, you wouldn’t start from here. So should we look upon the proposed ‘OxDevo‘ with suspicion, or embrace it? Is this the top brass re-arranging chairs on HSC Titanic and centralising power away from communities and service users? Or is this a major step forward towards a solid future of joint commissioning, which promises better personalisation and transparency? Clearly councils are split, probably because, like the rest of us, they can’t see into the foggy future. Generally we can all understand what we need, but we can’t see through the political mists obscuring the structures needed.

Further down the road, and a light year away in political will, is unitary council status; one council for one Oxfordshire. Clearly, with devolution the new game in town, unitary status as a concept may happen by default, but probably not at a political level. In other words, agreements and protocols to tie the whole thing together, but not a solid top to bottom conjoining. Meanwhile, districts are off pursuing their own relationships for future commissioning. Make no mistake this combined ‘purchasing power’ spells danger for local community organisations and owner-managed care providers. Five councils pooling resource can only mean national and international players winning contracts as big becomes beautiful in our scaled-up world.

Something which is under the radar is Oxfordshire Together; a proposal to down-source duties and responsibilities to bottom tier local government, those 317 parish and town structures mentioned above. Did you know your parish or town council may have been involved in discussions on anything from hedge trimming to delivery of social care? On the face of it, it looks like a way of dispersing the cost of service delivery from an aggregated county level to a very local level. Can a community with large needs support itself? And could our new community-led delivery be at odds with our newly centralised commissioning structure? Will social and health care mandarins be commissioning you and me as volunteers to support our vulnerable and elderly next door, after trimming the hedgerows of course, because we will need to do more for less. Or will Capita and Group 4 ride to the rescue with a one-size economy of scale. Both futures look bleak don’t they?

What is apparent in the scramble to manage austerity and provide a solution for Oxfordshire residents, is that, a bit like a stale relationship, our six councils are looking at any other passing suitor, but not at each other.

Marriage guidance is needed. Step forward, the community, voluntary and faith sector?