Oxfordshire County Council’s budget: what the parties are proposing

Oxfordshire County Council’s budget: what the parties are proposing
Photo by Andre Taissin / Unsplash

…in which we read all 53 documents so you don’t have to.

Tomorrow is budget-setting day at Oxfordshire County Council, and it promises to be a more fraught day than usual.

When a council has a stable majority administration, agreeing the budget is a formality. The Cabinet draws up the budget. The majority party/parties vote it through. The end.

That is not the situation on Oxfordshire County Council. Labour and the Conservatives could, if they so wish, together vote down the LibDem/Green proposals. Because no one group has a majority, some degree of horse-trading will be required to pass a budget.

That might mean one or both of the opposition parties abstaining. Or it might mean a compromise budget where the LibDem/Green administration accepts some proposals from an opposition group in return for their votes. If you’re thinking that this could end up essentially recreating the previous LibDem/Green/Labour coalition, you’re not wrong.

But the opposition councillors aren’t entirely without responsibility. Doing an Ian Paisley, sitting in the corner and shouting “No” repeatedly, is frowned upon. As this explainer makes clear (emphasis ours):

If it looks as though the draft budget proposed by the Executive will not be agreed by Council, the practical approach is to remind members of their duty to facilitate rather than frustrate the setting of a lawful budget with a view to trying to reach compromise and agreement beforehand. It should not be forgotten that if the Council refuses to accept the draft budget proposed by the Executive, they have to give the Leader five days in which to consider the alternative proposals put forward by the Council and come back to Council on a further date to consider the proposals.

Campaigning vs reality

It is easier to amend a budget than draw one up. Although OCC’s officers do scrutinise the opposition proposals to check they are “robust”, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would survive contact with reality.

Borrowing more money is fine when you can afford it, but reduces your future room for manoeuvre. Proposals for savings by making staff redundant can suddenly get complicated when consultations and unions are involved. A line that says “improved efficiencies” or “more income from enforcement” is easy to write but hard to deliver. Postponing hard decisions until there’s more “consensus” saves money now, but in the service of an illusory future. (Yes, we are talking about Oxford traffic here.)

We’ve gone through each party’s proposals below. If you want the ‘tl;dr’ version: the LibDem/Green administration have put forward a budget that would continue their work, with more money for children’s and adults’ social care. The Conservatives want cuts within OCC to fund more money on potholes. Labour want to borrow £23m to spend on children’s homes and traffic improvements.

(A note on terminology. Council spending is either revenue spending, which is the day-to-day ‘current account’, or capital spending, which is one-off spending on major items. Councils can also draw on their reserves, effectively the ‘savings account’, but they’re required to keep these in good order rather than spending it all at once.)

The LibDem/Green budget

As the (minority) administration, it falls to the Liberal Democrats and Greens to draw up the full budget. This is the baseline on which the other parties will propose their amendments.

They say with evident exasperation that the funds they receive from central Government have been ever changing, with details sent through to OCC just four days before the budget was due to be published. More than that, they call the final settlement “disappointingly low”.

Much of the capital spend is spoken for by unglamorous schemes required to keep the county moving. The single biggest new item is £11.9m on a replacement mortuary for the John Radcliffe (we hesitate to describe the old one as “end of life”, but you get the point). £2m goes on making buildings more fire-proof, £2m on the phone system, £2m on traveller site improvements. Not one of these will swing a single vote but it’s the job of a council.

The biggest increases in spending are on vulnerable residents. OCC is planning to spend £25.3m extra on children’s services, and £8.5m extra on adult social care. These are eye-watering sums. Since 2015, demand for Education Health & Care Plans (EHCPs) – the “statements” that identify children’s special needs, and how schools and care-givers will meet them – has risen by 220%, while Government funding has risen by 50%. This is far from just an Oxfordshire problem, but that doesn’t make it any easier to fund.

The council is also planning to spend £1.3m from reserves on clearing gullies and ditches in flood-prone areas. Overall highway maintenance spend will go up from £19.9m last year to £21m.

£2.5m from reserves would be allocated to the new Workplace Parking Levy in Oxford, which would impose a charge on employers in the city with 11+ parking spaces. The £2.5m would be recouped when WPL receipts start coming in. One of the three flagship Oxford traffic initiatives (together with traffic filters and the Zero Emission Zone), this follows a long-running scheme in Nottingham and is being considered by councils in London and Scotland.

Conservative amendments

The Conservative proposals begin by saying “a new consensus politics is required”, though then rather spoil the effect by criticising “a platform for virtue-signalling” – not generally a phrase you’d use if you were seeking consensus with other parties.

OCC’s Mobility Hubs scheme, which aims to develop public transport and active travel interchanges around the county, is unceremoniously dropped to save £1m. Oxford’s traffic filters (bus gates), Zero Emissions Zone, and Workplace Parking Levy would be “postponed” or “delayed”.

The biggest additional spend would be £1.4m extra on potholes and drainage over two years. The party positions this as a “focus on improving frontline services”, though it can’t be denied it’s an exceptionally good line to emblazon across your leaflets at the upcoming elections.

A series of amendments around Children’s Services, interestingly, focus on “developing an alternative resource base model to better support children and young people with Special Educational Needs in mainstream educational settings”. In other words, the focus is on providing for children with SEN within mainstream primary and secondary schools, not in specialist schools. This is a direct contrast to the direction that the current council has been moving, first under Labour’s Liz Brighouse and now in the minority administration.

There is an extra £113,000 to help children’s centres pay their rent. The previous Conservative council closed the majority of Oxfordshire’s children’s centres in 2017, making this a noteworthy but no doubt popular volte face.

The Conservative amendment appears to propose significant staff cuts within OCC. The Climate Emergency Team would be “combined with the Innovation Hub”, with the latter already proposed to become self-funding. This is said to save £584,000 over two years. It is hard to see the other parties voting for this.

OCC’s communications, marketing and policy teams would be “redesigned to facilitate the prioritisation of statutory services”. Again, the stated saving of £866,000 over two years suggests redundancies.

Labour amendments

Labour’s proposals are remarkably detailed, with 36 individual amendments to the revenue budget compared to the Conservatives’ 15. The mountain of supporting paperwork is beyond what would be required to make a few good lines on leaflets. Though the party is no longer part of the ruling coalition, does it believe it has a chance of getting some of these policies through?

Unlike the Conservative amendment, the language avoids direct criticism of the LibDem/Green administration, but does mention “the Tory cost of living crisis”. The message is clear: the coalition may have broken up, but we can still work together.

Labour’s approach is to borrow £23m to pay for big-ticket capital items: £5m on road maintenance, £6m on new children’s homes, £6m on unnamed “traffic congestion improvements”, £0.45m on more School Streets. £6m is proposed for an East Oxford Mini-Holland project – essentially a Low Traffic Neighbourhood on steroids, following the successful Waltham Forest example. According to OCC’s officer assessment, the £1.1m annual cost of this extra debt would be affordable by the council.

Turning to the revenue budget, the biggest extra spend is in Special Educational Needs: more “early intervention” work for young children, and beefing up the Family Help Team. But there’s also a long programme of transport work: more Controlled Parking Zones, number-plate recognition cameras to enforce traffic offences, pilot projects for on-demand bus services, and more. Much of this would be funded by releasing money from OCC’s reserves, but Labour also says initiatives like ANPR cameras would raise more money.

Some of Labour’s proposals are already envisaged by the LibDem/Green council. For example, the budget contains a mention of “Additional Children’s Homes” as a “Pre-pipeline Scheme” – in other words, not this year, but soon. It’s conceivable that bringing this forward could be an area for agreement between the parties.

What next?

There’s no Red Box and no photo opportunity outside 11 Downing Street. ‘Budget Day’ for a county council is less glamorous than for the UK Government. It will have fewer column inches written about it – and, as a result, less scrutiny. (That, in a small way, is what we’re trying to put right here.)

But it matters just as much to Oxfordshire residents. If you’re the parent of a child with Special Educational Needs, decisions taken in this meeting could determine their life chances. If you’ve breathed in Oxford’s pollution, sat in traffic queues, popped a tyre in a pothole, or struggled to push a buggy past a badly parked car, tomorrow’s transport spending decisions matter to you. Let’s not forget too that Oxfordshire County Council itself is one of the county’s biggest employers, and council employees with mortgages to pay will be wondering about their jobs.

More than usual, tomorrow’s meeting will have major consequences for the residents of Oxfordshire. Even if no-one else is watching, we are.