Essex heading towards devolution deal without a mayor

A ‘game-changer’ deal to give more powers directly to councils in Essex could be set to go ahead.

Essex County Council is heading towards a devolution deal without a directly elected mayor, it has been revealed.

Essex County Council, the two unitary bodies – Southend-on-Sea City Council and Thurrock Borough Council – along with the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, have agreed to work toward a level 2 devolution deal which, if agreed, would involve creating a new Greater Essex Combined Authority.

A deal would mean better funding and local decision-making in areas such as the economy, skills, transport, support for businesses.

The combined authority will be a new institution in which Essex County Council, Southend-on-Sea City Council and Thurrock Borough Council, working closely with the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, will take collective decisions on the powers and budgets that the government devolves to Greater Essex.

It would not be a merger of the three councils. Each authority would remain independent, as would the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner. The deal would also not involve a directly elected mayor.

The combined authority would incorporate the former role of the Local Enterprise Partnership, following the Government’s decision to disband these and bring them under local democratic oversight.

City, district and borough councils in Essex would also have a voice under the combined authority to ensure that local needs continue to be reflected in all decision-making.

The three authorities, alongside the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, have confirmed they will enter into negotiations with the government with the aim of agreeing a devolution deal in time for the government’s Autumn Budget Statement on November 22.

Cllr Kevin Bentley, leader of Essex County Council, said: “This is a game-changer for Greater Essex, will serve to further strengthen the Essex economy and improve public services for the benefit of residents and businesses across Essex, Southend and Thurrock.

“There is a way to go before the deal is finalised and we will be working hard over the coming weeks to ensure we achieve the best possible outcome for Greater Essex ahead of the Autumn Budget Statement. We will be pushing for the best deal possible for Greater Essex.”

While the level 2 deal would leave it with fewer powers than an area with a directly elected mayor, as per a level 3 deal, it would still have significant powers, including control of appropriate local transport functions, ability to introduce bus franchising, the ability to provide input into Local Skills Improvement Plans, and Homes England compulsory purchase powers.

Cllr Andrew Jefferies, leader of Thurrock Council, said: “We are keen to explore the opportunities and can see the potential of devolution. We’ll be entering negotiations with a focus on making sure any deals bring benefits for all in the county and are good for our residents in Thurrock.

Cllr Tony Cox, leader of Southend-on-Sea City Council, said: “This marks a significant milestone for devolution locally. We look forward to taking part in further negotiations with the Government on their proposed level 2 deal and then talking to our local communities about these proposals via public consultation.”

Roger Hirst, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, said: “This proposal will further enhance our ability to work effectively together to make a difference for our communities. Creating safe and secure communities where business can thrive and everybody can live fulfilling lives is important to us all. This proposal builds on our strong legacy of collaboration, cooperation and making lasting positive change for the public.”

Essex County Council cabinet member Cllr John Spence speaking at an Essex Health and Wellbeing Board meeting on September 20 told the meeting, made up of representatives from the NHS, council and emergency services, that the new deal would offer opportunities for different elements of health provision to work more collaboratively.

He said: “Most people in this room will be aware that the Secretary of State and Essex County Council have reached a high level agreement about a potential route towards greater devolution for the county.

He added: “We are into the detailed negotiations. It would be an interesting conversation to be held about what opportunities that might yield for us to work together in different way to do with prevention in its wider sense.”

The Government published a framework for level 2 deals in the Levelling Up White Paper. The details of the Greater Essex deal will be finalised in negotiations with the Government over the coming weeks. Essex, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock Councils will then undertake full public consultations on it.

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter