Councils map out their vision for the future of South Essex

Hospitals, schools, high-speed internet, a customs free zone and passenger river services that connect Southend to Tilbury are some of the aspirations laid out by councils across South Essex.

The councils across South Essex are planning to join forces to create a new combined authority that will see oversee the biggest shake-up in the region for a generation.

Their plan is to boost economic development by creating 100,000 jobs, more than 96,000 homes, and a raft of infrastructure improvements to public transport, education and health.

It could all be overseen by a new combined authority that will cover Southend, Thurrock, Basildon, Castle Point, Brentwood and Rochford, and potentially led by a mayor who is elected by residents.

Among the aspirations is a plan to overhaul public transport by making use of the region’s proximity to the Thames. This could include a passenger river boat service that will connect Southend to Tilbury and London.

Cycle routes and footpaths would also undergo a major transformation with, the whole region becoming connected in order to reduce the need to travel by car. The aim to reduce car use also ties in with future strategies to improve the health of residents, as well as go carbon neutral by 2040.

A large portion of the new housing will also be built within new villages and towns that will each be designed with infrastructure in mind. This will include meeting the needs of the community with open green space, high speed internet, as well as schools and education facilities.

It is estimated that building 96,000 homes in less than 20 years means 4,500 will have to be built each year and this will create 39,000 additional construction jobs. It will also mean up £31million extra for the councils from additional council tax income, along with business rates.

This will all be underpinned with the creation of thousands of new jobs through improvements to existing supply chains, targeted business support and more investment in the workforce by improving skills and education.

New businesses are also expected to be attracted to the region through plans to establish a ‘freeport’ – an area with little-to-no tax to encourage economic development.

While located within the UK, the freeport would operate outside of the usual tax rules and potentially allow businesses to avoid the usual tax requirements entirely.

The government has already laid out plans for 10 other freeports across the country once the UK leaves the EU. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they could create jobs in “left-behind areas” and Conservative MP Liz Truss has said they have the potential to create “thousands of jobs”.

It is not clear where the councils hope to establish a freeport in South Essex but they are typically located at seaports and airports to allow businesses to import goods and re-export them with the usual tariffs.

The South Essex councils will individually discuss the plan over the next week with the aim of ultimately taking the ideas to central Government to request both funding and devolved powers that will allow them to create the combined authority.

The intention is to work with Government ahead of the autumn Spending Review.

Southend leader says ‘this is not about merging councils

The leader of Southend Council has said the plans for a combined authority will not mean councils have to merge into a single authority.

Southend’s Labour leader Councillor Ian Gilbert explained that the combined authority will primarily take care of large-scale strategic development, which impacts the whole of South Essex.

Meanwhile, powers that councils such as Southend currently have will remain and residents will still be able to elect local councillors.

Mr Gilbert said: “Almost all decisions currently made by Southend will still be made in Southend.

“This is not about merging councils. In terms of the services we provide, like waste collection, highway repairs and community safety – all that will stay as our own thing.

“What we want to cooperate on is the strategic planning and strategic transport which is such a big issue and where problems are common across all of our authorities. We want to bring power down from the Government so we get a say in how money is spent.”

We will boost the UK economy by £15bn’, says Thurrock Council leader

The plans for a combined authority have taken almost three years to be put together by a partnership of councils known as the Association of South Essex Local Authorities.

The chair of the association has been Thurrock Council leader Rob Gledhill who has promised the plan to create a combined authority will help revitalise infrastructure and boost South Essex’s economic contribution by £15bn.

After the plans were revealed, Mr Gledhill said: “This draft prospectus is another significant step forward for South Essex.

“The package we want to share with Government later this month is summarised in a draft South Essex prospectus, and includes an ambition to grow the region’s contribution to the UK economy by £15bn to help correct the decades infrastructure deficit and create 100,000 new jobs by 2050.

“We have already shared the benefits of working collaboratively with a successful bid for £4.4million from Government to enable Full Fibre broadband infrastructure across South Essex helping providers to deliver some of the fastest connections in the country to residents and businesses.”

He continued: “South Essex has been under invested in for decades yet still punches well above its weight when it comes to contributing to the national economy, innovation and growth. We will play a significant part in helping the UK economy to recover post COVID and that part will be further boosted by working much closer together.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter