The rural picture: looking through South Oxfordshire’s budget

The rural picture: looking through South Oxfordshire’s budget
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya / Unsplash

Like us, you may be a bit budget-blind by now. No fewer than four of Oxfordshire’s councils set their budgets this week: Oxfordshire County Council on Tuesday, Oxford City Council and Vale of White Horse on Wednesday, South Oxfordshire tonight. West Oxfordshire and Cherwell will follow next week. Can you imagine our happy faces trawling through yet another impenetrable budget pack?

We can’t undertake to cover every single one. But looking at South Oxfordshire gives an illustration of the situation faced by the rural districts.

A view of the district

151,000 people live in South Oxfordshire. It's huge – and surprisingly diverse. Didcot is not Henley, Thame is not Wallingford. Images of green lanes in Chiltern hills mask significant pockets of deprivation in Berinsfield, Didcot West and Didcot South.

In contrast to the finely poised political balance on County and City, South Oxfordshire is dominated by the Liberal Democrats (21 councillors) and their Green allies (8). There are three Labour councillors in Didcot, one Conservative, and the three-strong Henley Residents Group.

Still, the structure of the budget is the same for any council (and our comments on openness and accessibility hold just as true). Once more, Government funding is down in real terms, leaving a gap to fill.

But South Oxfordshire’s financial position is not parlous in the way that many districts’ are. It has fewer immediate challenges, for example, than Cherwell’s. There was an income boost from business rate collection this year. They still have, and are forecast as part of this budget to keep, significant reserves – again, not a position all councils across the country enjoy. And they continue to work closely with their neighbours at Vale of White Horse, which reduces backend costs.

As a result, SODC are not proposing any service cuts or reductions, which is a neat trick given the economic climate. The core functions of district councils – planning and waste disposal – carry on regardless.

Where the money goes

So where are the notable spends? How does a council like SODC choose its discretionary spending in such a rural area?

£500k continues for community and capital grants. There is also £500k for the council’s Community Hub. This was originally funded by the government as part of the Covid response plan, responding to concerns of lockdown causing isolation and restricting access to resources. The Hub was set up to find solutions for those that needed it: for example, helping residents get access to food parcels, or set up a bank account to be able to receive subsidies for utilities bills.

The Government funding ended post-Covid. However, SODC have been able to bring it into their budget enabling it to continue as a permanent part of council operations.

Oxford residents, whose only views of Didcot are from a train carriage, may be surprised to know the town has a thriving arts centre – Cornerstone – with live comedy, children’s shows, and more. (This Lunar New Year they had a dragon!) This becomes fully funded, with an additional £60k for arts in the rest of the district.

There's a budget increase on homelessness prevention. The HR transformation work that has been ongoing becomes permanent, with additional staff in the finance team to support.

The capital budget is surprisingly large. £103m of capital projects include:

  • Leisure centre renovations
  • Decarbonisation of leisure centres and Cornerstone
  • A waste depot replacement
  • Didcot Gateway regeneration
  • Social housing

Leisure centres are a major responsibility for district councils, even though operation is usually contracted out. South Oxfordshire’s Didcot Wave centre is beloved by children across the county. But the travails of the Swindon Oasis, one stop down the railway line, show how expensive maintaining these can be.

The LibDem/Green administration on SODC has more than enough votes to pass the budget unamended. But there will still be a debate – as there should be. Look out for questions about Cornerstone and arts funding.

And there you have it. A four budget week; a quick precis. Do you live in South Oxfordshire? What do you think of this budget? And, more importantly, what do you think of Cornerstone?