Expletives fly as Southend meeting descends into the gutter over future of councils

A TORY leader was allegedly told to f*** off by a Labour rival as a council meeting in Southend descended into chaos over a “dangerous” plan to reshape the way councils work which was derided as “an assault on democracy”.

Councillors met to discuss controversial plans to formalise the Association of South Essex Local Authorities – a collaboration of councils meeting at an unelected forum to drive through vast changes across the region, including plans for a new tramline.

However, when Councillor Tony Cox, leader of Southend’s Conservative group, raised concerns about how democratic the group would be, he was allegedly told to f*** off by Matt Dent, Labour councillor for Kursaal Ward.

Cllr Cox responded angrily, calling Cllr Dent a “potty-mouthed moron”.

He added: “It’s not for the first time you’ve had a mouth like a sewer in the council chamber. Don’t do it to me. I’m not going to be sworn at by you.”

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Dent said he “couldn’t remember” hurling the expletive at Cllr Cox before adding: “I’m not sure what I said. I expressed my displeasure.”

The council is set to decide whether to form a joint committee for the Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA). The committee will include Basildon, Brentwood, Castle Point, Essex County Council, Rochford, Southend and Thurrock and will be overseen by a chairman appointed by the group.

Councillors at the policy and resources scrutiny committee meeting were told the group would be able to attract more Government money in this form, including large sums to kick start building projects which have planning permission but where developers have stalled over finance.

Each authority’s leader would be present at ASELA meetings but some councillors feared they would not have a direct input into decisions made by the group.

Cllr Cox said: “This is nothing short of an out and out assault on local democracy. Under the current arrangements with ASELA we effectively have a veto. Here we have the leader saying “well I’ll have a voice”, which effectively relegates him to a cabinet member in ASELA and it relegates this council to nothing more than a scrutiny committee.

“To have a leader of any body that is unelected is out and out dangerous. We are going to have a leader just decided amongst a few. That can’t be right. That’s not democracy.”

The group is currently working on a range of schemes designed to boost the south Essex economy, including a technical university.

Ian Gilbert, Labour leader of the council, said: “To characterise this as an assault on democracy when Conservative councils across the area are actually signing up to this and are fully on board is just quite frankly bizarre.

” We are not proposing to give up any of the council’s statutory powers whatsoever. Anything which takes away our planning powers will be opposed by me and by other leaders throughout the area.

“This represents an opportunity not to take powers away from us as the council, but actually to pursue the projects which we cannot pursue as an individual council.”

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Christine Sexton

Local Democracy Reporter