Basildon votes against county devolution deal

Basildon Council has voted to oppose a devolution deal if it is implemented across the county, arguing that it will not benefit the region.

Councillor Phil Turner (Con., Billericay West) presented his motion suggesting the administration sends a letter to the county authority which “calls for a stop to devolution” as proposed by Essex County Council (ECC).

Southend-on-Sea City Council, Thurrock Council and ECC have all along with the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, agreed to work toward a ‘level 2′ devolution deal – which if agreed, would involve creating a new Greater Essex Combined Authority.

Primarily, ECC’s leader Councillor Kevin Bentley (Con., Marks Tey and Layer) is proposing the restructuring to enact county-wide improvements to transport networks and adult education.

Addressing those in attendance at a council meeting on December 14, Cllr Turner said: “The government will tell you that they are putting destiny in our hands. It’s devolving powers down to local government level, and with these powers comes responsibility.”

Cllr Turner described the initial  £20 million cash injection promise as simply an “inducement” and a “sweetener”, and that although ECC had “deemed that it would be able to cut through the bureaucracy” of a devolved local government, it was money which was firmly within the council’s grasp already.

Despite admitting that he had previously been an advocate for devolution in Essex while leading Basildon Council between 2014 and 2017, and being enticed by what was presented as a “growth agenda”, Cllr Turner said: “[ECC] wanted development, development, development… and [district and borough councils] weren’t necessarily going to be able to choose what that development was.

“ECC’s pitch… is that we who are opposing devolution now are being hysterical.”

He went on to describe ECC seeking a devolution deal as “sprats catching mackerel”, suggesting that a small risk for the central authority would reap benefits, but that they had no guarantee of positively affecting Basildon long-term.

“What is being offered can already be achieved without a combined authority… another tier of government is just going to cause more taxpayers’ money to be siphoned off when we least need it,” he said.

Speaking specifically on plans to improve transport and road networks, Cllr Turner said that the A13 and Southend Arterial roads –  which help link South Essex to central London – were not highlighted for inclusion within the scheme. He said that this was evidence that other districts across the region were “not worried about what goes on in this part of the world”, and that in discussions there was “no mention, no voice… and no seat around the table for Basildon”.

Seconding Cllr Turner’s motion, Councillor Craig Rimmer (Con., Pitsea South-East) said that the “indirectness” of governance through devolved power would lead to “diluted accountability” of the unitary authority Basildon would be absorbed by.

Councillor Kerry Smith (Ind., Nethermayne) described himself as a “Bas-exiteer”, saying that “if anything, (Basildon Council) should be calling for withdrawal from ECC”.

He said that the county was too diverse for such a generalised approach, and that different districts did not “have a lot in common from one corner to the other in Essex”.

However, council leader Andrew Baggott (Con., Burstead) and Councillor Andrew Schrader (Con., Billericay East) both expressed their understanding of the county council’s argument for implementing a devolved local government.

Cllr Baggott said that, although Basildon had become a “third-class citizen” in discussions about what this would mean for the region, devolution as a whole is “not the devil that some people think it is”, and that in any situation it is unlikely that change “will come without a bureaucratic cost”.

Cllr Turner’s motion was passed through a majority vote.

Emma Doyle

Local Democracy Reporter