County council prepared to go it alone if talks with devolution partners hit a wall

Essex will ask to go it alone if its two partners involved in discussions for devolution hinder progress, the leader of Essex County Council has said.

Since last Autumn, leaders and councillors across Greater Essex – made up of Essex County Council, Southend-on-Sea City Council and Thurrock Council – have been discussing the opportunities that could be presented by devolution, what a devolution deal might look like, and how communities across Essex could benefit.

In Greater Essex this could mean more funding and greater control over fundamental issues such as health, planning, transport, skills, economic growth, and infrastructure. Based on similar deals in other areas, it could also mean as much as £1 billion in new Government money.

The Government has indicated it prefer the level 3 model in which Essex would be devolved into a single lead institution or county council working across a functional economic area, such as a Combined County Authority with a directly elected mayor.

Level 2 constitutes a single lead institution or county council working across a functional economic area – in practice, for Greater Essex, this would mean the creation of a Combined County Authority that would deal with the areas of devolved power.

The leaders of Essex County Council, Southend-on-Sea City Council and Thurrock Council – along with the leaders of district, borough and city councils, and the Police Fire and Crime Commissioner – have been debating the shape and content of a draft ‘expression of interest’ document – described as a starting point and an initial approach to the Government which sets out the key principles and areas that they wish to collectively explore.

Essex and Thurrock are clear that the opportunities and ambitions of Level 3 are significant and would deliver material benefits to Greater Essex residents.

However, Southend-on-Sea City Council passed a motion in 2020 which stated that “this cabinet opposes a directly elected mayoral form of governance, or any form of governance that diminishes the powers of the Southend-on-Sea Borough Council as a unitary authority and the largest conurbation in Essex.”

It has added that understanding both the offer for a Level 2 deal alongside Southend and a parallel conversation on Level 3 elements is where it wants to begin negotiations with Government.

Leader of Essex County Council Kevin Bentley, who has ruled himself out of standing as a directly elected mayor for Essex, indicated the administrative area of Essex County Council would attempt to create a devolved area of its own if negotiations failed.

He said: “If the other two unitary authorities don’t play ball as it currently stands we would find it difficult to progress. However if that were the case – and we are not at that place, both unitary authorities are seeing a form of devolution as important – I would ask that Essex go it alone because it is that important.”

He added: “No-one is opposing the expression of interest as I see it at the moment. Whether that changes as the conversation goes on I don’t know. All I know is I don’t think I have seen a level of collaboration between all levels of local government in Essex as I’m seeing at the moment.

“Everyone wants this county of Greater Essex to succeed and I think they see this as a vehicle to it succeeding. Once we stop thinking about just the road we live in and think about the county of Greater Essex we live in I think we have greater clarity where we can be and what we can achieve for future generations.”

Councillor Stephen George, Leader of Southend City Council, said: “As we have said all along, the expression of interest doesn’t commit Greater Essex or indeed Southend-on-Sea to anything yet, but it is vital that we are part of the conversation so we can understand the different opportunities that devolution could bring to our local area and the wider county.

“It is very important that Southend-on-Sea plays an active role in these discussions. We are pleased to be involved and look forward to discussions beginning with Government on this.

“Southend-on-Sea councillors felt strongly that the 2020 motion should be reflected openly in the expression of interest document to Government. The governance arrangements of devolution will be considered in due course as we begin discussions with Government.”


Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter