Councils could be completely reshaped under plans being put together by Essex County Council

Southend and Thurrock councils could join with a number of other authorities as part of a wider plan to completely eliminate county and district councils and reshape Essex.

Essex County Council has been working up a plan that could see all district and county councils removed and replaced with up to four unitary authorities that oversee the whole of Essex.

The plan is outlined in an email sent to Southend party leaders by the borough’s chief executive Alison Griffin.

It explains Essex County Council leader David Finch along with the council’s chief executive Gavin Jones want to “explore” the creation of a “Greater Essex Mayoral Combined Authority” which would operate above the newly formed councils.

It would be led by an elected mayor who could have oversight of budgets, county-wide development schemes, the police and fire services and planning.

The mayor’s powers would need to be confirmed through negotiations with central government.

The email goes on to note the county council will not be seeking to become its own unitary, leaving it unclear whether it would join one of the other larger authorities.

The plan, which is in very early stages, has already been endorsed by Simon Clarke, secretary of state for regional growth and local government, who wrote in a letter addressed to Mr Finch that he “warmly” welcomes the plans and he looks forward to discussions in the autumn.

The response is a stark contrast to Mr Clarke’s response to the separate and significantly smaller plan from council leaders in the south of the county who have proposed the creation of a South Essex Combined Authority.

Mr Clarke told council bosses “it is not clear to me on first sight that South Essex would be the right geography for such an arrangement”.

Details of the county council plan are likely to inflame political tensions across Essex, particularly in Southend where councillors have been locked in arguments over the idea of a South Essex Combined Authority.

Councillors in Southend fear a combined authority would mean handing off many of the powers the council already has as a unitary authority which is responsible for all functions of local government.

Southend council leader Ian Gilbert has stressed that the south Essex plan remains the “priority”.

Independent deputy council leader, Ron Woodley, speculated that the county council plan could mean Southend Council merging with Rochford and Castle Point and Thurrock merging with Basildon and Brentwood.

The other two authorities he said could be created by merging councils in the north east and the north west.

Mr Woodley continued: “It seems they want a combined authority over the top of the unitaries but why? You don’t need a combined authority above them.”

Councillor Martin Terry (Ind), who is a strong supporter of keeping Southend unitary, said creating up to four unitary councils could work but “Southend should not be dragged back to a situation where an out of town authority is bossing us around”.

Councillors in Thurrock, Essex’s other unitary council, have also been strongly behind the south Essex combined authority plan.

Council leader Rob Gleedhill, who is chair of the south Essex partnership behind the plan promised they are “not looking at taking powers away from any of the six local authorities and local sovereignty will be maintained”.

He continued: “Instead we are looking at the best way we can work together to ensure that we can have a significant positive impact on residents’ lives in the future and that some powers are devolved from Westminster to South Essex.”

Essex County Council declined to comment.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter