Council devolution deal only after structural reform

A combined authority in Essex has been thrown into doubt until at least after major local government reform.

A speech from Simon Clarke, minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, spelt out the government’s aim “to provide local authorities with a clear blueprint to take forward their own aspirations for devolution”.

It came at the same time that details were released of plans being discussed by a group of six south Essex local authorities for a directly elected mayor in charge of a combined local authority.

The mayoral-led combined authority devolution deal is one suggestion being looked at by the collective group of Basildon Borough Council; Brentwood Borough Council; Castle Point Borough Council; Essex County Council; Rochford District Council; Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Thurrock Council, for submission to government.

Several of the councils within South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA) will be meeting on July 22 to discuss the creation of a combined authority led by a directly elected mayor with powers akin to that in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough combined authority, with a mayor possibly enacted and in place by as early as May 2021.

However, it seems devolution plans for Essex will only be considered once more unitary councils are created within Essex aside from Southend and Thurrock – it is understood that an entire reorganisation of local government will be required and that just reshaping current district councils into unitaries will not be enough.

Cllr David Finch, Leader of Essex County Council, who has received some criticism over a lack of concrete support for ASELA’s plans said the government had made it clear that structural reform needed to happen before devolved powers would be considered.

He said: “We welcomed the Government’s announcement of a White Paper in the autumn which would create the opportunity for better outcomes for residents, businesses and communities through a simpler, more streamlined system of local government.

“The Minister for Local Government Simon Clarke MP said he expected proposals for new unitary councils in county areas to come before any devolution deals. He was clear that structural reform needed to happen before devolved powers would be considered.

“As we said over a week ago, Essex CC is keen to engage with all our partners on the best structures to help build back the Essex economy better in the post-COVID world, building on the excellent partnership working and relationships established through the pandemic crisis period.”

ASELA says that if the full potential of South Essex is to be realised for all communities then the region needs a bigger and stronger relationship with Government and the private sector.

However, the minister, speaking at the Northern Powerhouse Education, Skills, and Employment Summit, said he saw” establishing the unitisation of councils as a vital first step for negotiating these mayoral devolutions.”

He said: “Delivering change is not always easy, but the prize for our communities and our country is enormous.

“I do not believe it is either right or sustainable to have the current asymmetry in our devolution arrangements.

“Whereby the gap between those areas that have mayoralties enjoying the resulting funding and freedoms…and those areas that do not…will only widen, unless and until we take action to address it.

“With that in mind, we need to provide local authorities with a clear blueprint to take forward their own aspirations for devolution.

“This September, the government will, therefore, be publishing the Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper…which will lay a clear path for levelling up every region of our country.

“It will provide a roadmap for establishing a series of new mayors within the next ten years – representing the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history.

“In our towns, cities, and rural counties, we will give local places the ability to come forward with new mayoral devolution deals which work for every community, allowing them to become masters of their own destiny.

“The White Paper will also redefine the way in which local government serves its communities by establishing the unitisation of councils as a vital first step for negotiating these mayoral devolution deals in the future.

“A move to unitisation will streamline the delivery of good governance.

“Place local government on a more sustainable financial and population footing. Inject more accountability into our democratic structures. And save money that can be re-invested in those communities.

“I say this very conscious of the immense contribution of all tiers of local government during this crisis.

“Unitising at the right scale can preserve the best of district councils’ strong relationship with local communities…with the more strategic geography of the county councils.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter