Anger over secrecy behind plans to create a combined authority for South Essex

A councillor declared Southend is “not Russia or China” during a heated debate over why plans to completely transform the way south Essex is governed were made in secret.

A partnership of council leaders from Southend, Thurrock, Basildon, Rochford, Castle Point and Brentwood are looking to create the South Essex Combined Authority to get extra funding from the Government.

The new authority would need to be agreed with the Government, but could also see the introduction of a directly elected mayor who would be responsible for region-wide projects aimed at boosting economic development.

At a Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee meeting on Wednesday night, Independent councillor Keith Evans called for an investigation into why the plans had been put together in secret and told council leader Ian Gilbert that Southend is “not Russia or China”.

Cllr Evans further pressured the council leader over why meetings between council leaders had not been recorded and had no minutes that are publicly available.

Cllr Gilbert admitted the meetings should not be taking place with such a high degree of secrecy, but claimed he “inherited” the system when he became council leader.

He continued: “I never had any intention of hiding matters and some members have mentioned honesty, I hope members know I have never done anything dishonest in this role, nor would I.

“This is the first step of negotiation, it is not an end point. The council will have the chance to vote on any settlement with the Government.”

He added: “In hindsight, perhaps it was unfortunate that when a memorandum of understanding was signed it was decided that the status of meetings were set to private.”

Councillor Charles Willis (Lab) said: “Councillor Gilbert has said he doesn’t know where the end point will be for this but the rest of the council doesn’t know the start point.

“There is a total lack of information about what is being negotiated and by who.”

Cllr Gilbert was also unable to tell members how much investment council leaders expect to get as the Government “does not want figures in the public domain”.

At the end of the meeting, councillors called for a further discussion on the issue at a special Full Council meeting next week.

The concerns came days after MPs Sir David Amess and Mark Francois also spoke of secrecy surrounding the plan in the House of Commons.

In a cabinet meeting earlier that day, council leaders voted unanimously to oppose the establishment of an elected mayor along with any other change that “diminishes the powers of Southend Council as a unitary authority”.

Deputy leader Ron Woodley compared the plans to a “dissertation from a university graduate”, saying it was “full of promises but no depth”.

He said: “It says we will help 50,000 businesses to grow and increase their productivity – how is that going to happen? Businesses and industry improve their productivity, councils do not do that.

“It goes on and on and on about things that are totally outlandish”.

The Conservative Group on Basildon Council has also spoken out against the combined authority plan and the secrecy behind it, calling the plan, “..a blueprint t add yet another layer of bureaucracy at the taxpayers’ expense.”

They fear that the appointment of a Metro-Mayor who would take control of planning and housebuilding would lead to the brunt of new housing being dumped on Basildon.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter