Editorial: Local Government: The View From Oxford By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday June 03, 2005

Today’s lesson in comparative local government in university cities (a putative excuse for our trip to Oxford) started with a two-hour walking tour of Oxford’s university, including seven or eight of its colleges and some principal university buildings. We were lucky to have as our guide the retired university marshal (head of its police and security services), previously superintendent with the fabled Oxfordshire police force of Inspector Morse fame. Besides giving us a capsule history lesson at every s top, he entertained us with anecdotal asides about how public relations image diverges from reality, here as in Berkeley.  

For example, pedestrianized streets: He led our tour group skittering across one of them in the rain, dodging trucks, busses and al so plenty of speeding luxury cars. “Not supposed to be here!” he muttered. Why, we asked, were private cars allowed to use this street, even though the signs clearly said they couldn’t? “Enforcement,” he said, “I’m not running things anymore—I didn’t allo w it.”  

The tour ended in front of Oxford Town Hall, which presented further research opportunities. Soaking wet and probably suspect-looking, we asked the woman at the reception desk if we could talk to someone about how government works in Oxford. “You need to talk to the information office,” she said. This seems to be the new world standard—anyone who’s anybody anywhere has a hired buffer between them and the questioning public. She sent me to a telephone booth to call the PR person, whose message machine, of course, said that she was “away from her desk.”  

Maybe I’ll call back tomorrow, but in the meantime I grabbed a handful of printed material that told me more about what’s going on here.  

First, a little flyer photocopied onto cheap green paper informed me of the existence of the Oxford Civic Society. It started in 1969 “as a protest group to stop the wholesale destruction of the City by those determined to strangle us with roads and destroy our heritage...the Society believes that it is only by concerted action that our City can be defended from poor planning, pollution, and the mass invasion of cars.” Noble goals, suitable for most cities these days, even for Berkeley—and a look at their web page, www.oxfordcivicsoc.org.uk, has many particulars about how much they’ve accomplished and how they’ve done it. 

Next, some pamphlets from the Oxford City Council: The one entitled I Want to Make a Complaint, your guide to the Council’s complaints procedure, said earnestly that “our aim is to provide a quality service to you, our customer.” A full page flow chart detailing many ways citizens might register complaints gave the impression that they really mean what they say. Another one, aimed at dealing with citizen fears about cell phone towers, showed that some things are the same everywhere. Not the same: Oxford Shopmobility, a service which provides free wheelchair or motorized cart use for anyone with a temporary or permanent mobility difficulty while they’ve shopping in Oxford. That’s something Ber keley could use. 

But the best information, of course, was only available after we got back to our friends’ flat, on the Internet, increasingly the major means of communication for those who can afford it. I learned that Oxford is a city of 134,000 reside nts, and I found out that I was wrong about details of how the Oxford City Council works. 

There are 48 (!) Councillors, representing 24 Wards (2 Councillors for each Ward), with half elected every two years. Councillors are said to be “democratically acc ountable to residents of their Ward....the overriding duty of Councillors is to the whole community, but they have a special duty to their constituents, including those who did not vote for them.” The full council decides on policies and budgets, and elec ts an executive board which makes day to day decisions. There are also six area committees with additional citizen members and a variety of special purpose committees which have powers and budgets of their own. 

Oxford is like Berkeley in one way: There’s no interest here in right-wing politics. After the 2004 elections, Labour holds 20 seats on the Oxford City Council, Liberal Democrats have 18, greens seven, and something called the Independent Working Class Association captured three seats. No Conserva tives need apply, evidently.  

Government funding has been much more centralized in Britain than in the United States in the past, with less of the budget raised and spent locally, but California cities have almost lost control of their own budgets in the past few years. Our tour guide told us he still pays about $5,000 a year in local “rates,” besides what I assume was a hefty income tax when he was a wage-earner.  

Does a much bigger pool of active citizen participants in government make for a more demo cratic city, or is Oxford, like Berkeley, increasingly controlled by the managerial class despite apparent citizen power? That’s not easy to figure out in a short visit like this. The only local paper I’ve seen so far is a community weekly, much bigger than the Daily Planet, with many more ads from local merchants, but not much local hard news. Berkeley being Berkeley, there are probably Planet readers who know more about local government in Britain than I do—maybe they’ll write with their analysis.