Devolution plan paused over concerns from MPs

The leader of Essex County Council has said his goal of devolution will never be abandoned despite work being “paused” in the face of concerns from Essex MPs.

Councillor Kevin Bentley has described the decision from central government as “extremely disappointing” but has indicated the council is still committed to a deal between Essex County Council. Thurrock and Southend to form a combined county authority.

Councillor Bentley has said a devolution deal for Greater Essex would bring significant benefits including having greater control over funding and decision-making in areas like skills, transport and the environment.

He said it would also incorporate the Local Enterprise Partnership functions, following the Government’s decision to transfer these to local authorities from April 2024.

However, there have been concerns from some MPs about establishing a combined county authority for the Greater Essex area at this time.

In a message to fellow county councillors, Cllr Bentley said: “Without consensus and given where we are in terms of timescales, we have now passed the point where a deal could be agreed, consulted on and implemented in this parliament. We have now been formally notified by the Minister for Levelling Up that efforts to pursue a deal at this time will be paused until after the general election.

“While understandable given the timings, this news is extremely disappointing given the work that has happened to get us to this point. We are hopeful however that the significant economic and public service benefits of a devolution deal for Greater Essex will eventually be recognised and we can move forward positively in the future. We will continue to work closely together on shared priorities across the Greater Essex area and efforts to integrate the Local Enterprise Partnerships to drive growth and jobs. Delivering for our residents will always be our priority.”

At full council on February 13, he said: “While we have not quite got to devolution –  it’s paused- we shall get it because it’s right for the people of Essex.”

He added that major underinvestment in roads showed how important devolution is

He said: “It does give you the absolute reason that I certainly believe in devolution that the more powers we can wrestle from Westminster and give it to local people via this council the better. We are demonstrating we collectively can do things better than they can in Whitehall. Which is why I will never give up on devolution. We can do it far better.”

A joint statement sent on behalf of the leaders of Essex County, Southend-on-Sea City and Thurrock Councils, and the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex: “We remain committed to achieving a devolution deal for Greater Essex and realising the significant economic benefits it would bring to Essex, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock.

“The support we have received during our engagement with local businesses and partners to date is extremely encouraging. While we are of course disappointed not to have concluded and implemented a deal to date, it is important that we are united in our ambitions and that anything shared for consultation has joint support.

“We’d like to thank those who have championed the deal for Greater Essex to date and look forward to continuing this work in the future.”

A letter from Jabob Young, minister for levelling up to Cllr Bentley at the end of January said: “While there is strong support for this proposition from the local authorities some MPs continue to have strong reservations about the prospect of establishing a Combined County Authority over the Greater Essex area at this time.

“Given the importance of any devolution deal enjoying broad support, and in light of the fact that we are passing the point in time where a deal could be agreed and implemented in this parliament, the Secretary of State and I have agreed to pause discussions regarding devolution to Greater Essex.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter