Government appears to reject ‘secret’ combined authority plan in setback for council leaders

The Government has told councils across south Essex that a plan to completely transform the way the region is governed is unlikely to work.

The setback came on the same day that Southend Council voted to join authorities from across south Essex in lobbying the government for more cash through the creation of a South Essex Combined Authority that would operate above existing councils.

In a letter, the minister for regional growth and local government, Simon Clarke, appeared to dismiss the combined authority before negotiations have even begun.

He said: “I will always judge every proposal on its merits. However, it is not clear to me on first sight that south Essex would be the right geography for such an arrangement, and I would be happy to discuss this further.”

He went on to say the organisation behind the plan known as Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA) should delay the plans until the autumn when the Government will publish plans for “empowering our regions by devolving money, powers and control from Westminster”.

Despite Southend councillors seeing the letter ahead of a Special Full Council meeting on Thursday night, they still voted to work with ASELA in negotiating with the Government.

Council leader Cllr Ian Gilbert said it was vital councillors voted to be a part of the negotiations as it gives them “a seat at the table”.

He warned not taking part could put “millions or tens of millions at least” in infrastructure funding at risk.

But rival councillors pushed back against the negotiations over concerns that ASELA – which is made up of council leaders from Southend, Thurrock, Basildon, Brentwood, Rochford and Castle Point – is a “secretive organisation” which has held more than 20 meetings without any formal record.

The leader of the Conservative Group, Councillor Tony Cox said: “Why would we, as an authority, diminish our own powers? Bearing in mind the governance model proposed would diminish and take away about five per cent of our powers.

“We need to have collaboration with are partners. You need to talk, you need to discuss certain things because there are some issues that transcend boundaries.

“But what we find is we have a secretive organisation, which publishes no minutes and has its own budget that this council never signed up to or agreed to spend taxpayers money on.

“Then the administration says it supports a combined authority yet the government minister has rubbished that suggestion before any ink is applied to a letter. If we had a combined authority it would mean we would lose powers as an authority.”

Other councillors said the plans were “written on sandwich wrappers” and “papering over cracks” while Labour councillors rallied around Cllr Gilbert and accused rivals of making the issues “political” and opposing because they want the credit.

In a narrow vote 24 councillors voted for council bosses to review the plans while 29 voted for the council to move forward.

Welcomed by MPs

The Government’s apparent refusal to back plans for a combined authority in south Essex has been welcomed by four of the region’s MPs, who said the plan for a combined authority would only lead to “another layer of bureaucracy” and hit out at council leaders for making the plans in secret.

The Tory MPs, John Baron, who represents Basildon and Billericay, James Duddridge of Rochford and Southend East, Mark Francois of Rayleigh and Wickford, and Sir David Amess of Southend West, also said they told council leaders last week that they are completely opposed to the plans.

On behalf of the group, Mark Francois said: “None of us are convinced that this white elephant would be of benefit to our constituents in Essex.

“This unnecessary layer of bureaucracy has unfortunately been dreamt up over two years, in private, by six council leaders and six local authority chief executives, none of whom really had a mandate, from either from their backbench councillors, or the wider public, for their secret scheme.

“The minister’s letter pours cold water on south Essex being the right geography for such an arrangement and, moreover, confirms clearly that Essex County Council, who are on the record as opposing the idea, effectively have a veto – so this flawed idea is now very unlikely to ever become a reality.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter