Brentwood Council leader dismisses Essex ‘mega council’ talk as codswallop

The leader of Brentwood Borough Council has scotched talk of support for a “mega council” stretching from Southend to Brentwood, encompassing almost one million residents.

Details have not yet been published, but it seems likely that the Government will want to introduce across the UK what are known as combined authorities, that are underpinned by single-tier unitary authorities.

It is widely anticipated that these will replace the traditional two–tier system of county and district council models that many within Whitehall argue needs to be replaced.

Cllr Chris Hossack says that as the white paper has not been published, no council yet has the detail as to what size these unitary councils will be, let alone what shape they will take in Essex.

“There are no proposals at all at the stage,” he added.

He has made it clear that there would be no support from him for a unitary authority that stretches from Southend to Brentwood, encompassing Rochford and Basildon, which would potentially look after around 900,000 residents.

“There is categorically no plan to create a ‘mega-council’ that stretches from Southend to Brentwood, encompassing Rochford, Basildon etc. This would encompass circa 900,000 residents and is far too large to be a local service provider,” he said.

Essex County Council leader David Finch has said he wants to explore the creation of a “Greater Essex Mayoral Authority” which would operate above between two and four newly formed unitary authorities.

With a total Essex population of 1.8million, two unitary authorities would each have around 900,000 residents, almost the size of Birmingham, which Cllr Hossack said would be “completely unworkable”.

Cllr Hossack added: “In the absence of the white paper we are only guessing that a sustainable model would be around 300,000 to 500,000.

“The point is no one has done the modelling to see which proposals are even workable.

“When David Finch asked me about a unitary authority for the whole of South Essex, which is 900,000, I said that is absolutely not workable. It’s far too big.

“That is not workable, that is not devolution.”

It is likely that a unitary authority looking after Brentwood would be made up of bordering districts, potentially including Chelmsford, Epping, Basildon and Thurrock.

But that is not the only question unanswered.

Essex has one of the most complex local government structures in the UK – one county council, 12 district/borough/city councils and two unitary councils in Southend and Thurrock.

A simplified system is being pushed by the Government to save money and increase efficiency.

Alongside this, and providing new unitary councils are agreed, the Government is also allowing proposals for a combined authority, led by a directly elected Mayor.

A combined authority would be represented by the leaders of the new unitary councils, and would be able to secure funding for investment in our economy and infrastructure.

The ambition in Essex is to have proposals ready to submit following the publication of the white paper in the autumn.

Cllr Hossack said that what becomes of Essex County Council and the makeup of a combined authority has also yet to be resolved.

He said: “Does Essex County Council automatically default to become the combined authority?

“The mayor of a combined authority might keep some of the roles like adult social care.

“There is an assumption that Essex County Council would morph into a combined authority but the bigger and more emotive question is the size and shape of the unitaries.

“The only thing Essex has said so far is one combined authority and two to four unitaries.

“What they are saying is when we do the number crunching the numbers will tell us what the best number of unitaries is.

“Rumours in the absence of a white paper is that 300,000 to 500,000 would seem to be the right sort of numbers.

“Only when we get the white paper will it verify that 450,000 is probably what the government is looking for. It’s all unknown.

“But to say a mega council is going to be formed is codswallop.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter