From Blue to Yellow
The political landscape in Oxfordshire has seen a fairly significant shift in the last few years, as safe Conservative wards have slowly slipped into the hands of Liberal Democrat candidates. In May 2019, South Oxfordshire District Council went from a strong Conservative administration of 33 councillors to a Lib Dem-Green council, with the sea of blue reduced to a paltry 10 members. Conservatives experienced another shock when Ian Hudspeth, who had been county councillor since 2005 and Leader of Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) since 2012, lost his Woodstock division to Lid Dem Andy Graham.
After a week of difficult negotiations following the May elections, the Lib Dems formed a new administration at county level with the Labour and Green members and Cllr Liz Leffman was established as leader. At the start of her tenure, Cllr Leffman said that the focus of the council was to become zero carbon across the county, improve the affordable housing offer, particularly in Oxford city centre, and improve the region’s infrastructure.
A green and pleasant county
OCC has adopted all the principles in the Climate and Ecology Emergency Bill and their new Leader has vowed to protect the green belt. In a county abundant with green fields and rolling hills, this promise could be at odds with a commitment to building more affordable housing. Whilst Cllr Leffman has suggested developing on brownfield sites in Oxford city centre to provide homes, the difficulty is finding vacant sites….
Getting on the right track
Increasing the accessibility and frequency of bus and rail travel is a priority for the new administration. Cllr Leffman has spoken of her ambition to improve rural bus routes and upgrade the Cotswolds railway line. There have even been discussions around a potential light rail to head westwards along the A40, to alleviate congestion on a road frequently affected by collisions and jams.
Northern and western parts of the county are prevented from unlocking their potential due to poor transport links. Cllr Leffman has stressed the importance of ensuring new developments promote active and sustainable travel, but also that they are brought forward in areas where connectivity either exists or can be achieved. For instance, a strategic site by Culham Science Park will eventually provide 3,500 homes and hundreds of jobs: the site benefits from a railway station and OCC is looking to increase the number of services going through the station.
Is a unitary authority the next step?
OCC has been partnered with Cherwell District Council since Autumn 2018, which has allowed the two authorities to work together on larger strategic projects related to planning and transport. Cllr Leffman is keen to see people working together on projects, for example planning officers and highways officer. However, she doesn’t seem in a hurry to bring all authorities under one umbrella: it could result in an unwieldy and bureaucratic organisation that doesn’t streamline processes. For the time being, it doesn’t look as if Oxfordshire will be following in the footsteps of its neighbour, Buckinghamshire.
Written by Imogen Bath
Senior Account Manager