MPs accuse council leaders of keeping them in the dark over combined authority plan

Operating south Essex councils with a directly elected mayor would be a “white elephant” say MPs, who claim council leaders created the plan in secret.

Council bosses in Southend, Basildon, Thurrock, Rochford, Brentwood and Castle Point revealed last week they are considering a new combined authority that could lead to a directly elected mayor and an entirely new council that operates above those that already exist.

It is unclear if the plans will ever become a reality, but MPs Sir David Amess and Mark Francois, criticised council bosses for not discussing it with them before making the announcement.

Sir David, MP for Southend West, said: “No one involved in this suggestion has asked my opinion or briefed me as to what it would mean.

“Together with my immediate colleagues, I will be discussing the matter with the relevant minister.

“The issues which I have would be that the last thing I would support would be yet another layer of bureaucracy.

“The state of the economy is troubling because of the Covid-19 crisis. I would not support money being spent on an extra tier of government.”

The MP also raised the issue in the House of Commons calling the way it has been handled “disgraceful”.

Mark Francois, MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, also commented in the commons, calling “the whole thing a farce”.

He later said that he believes councillors who are not part of the cabinet have been “deliberately excluded” from the plans.

He said: “As a South Essex MP I am completely opposed to this ridiculous white elephant, which would impose a needless layer of additional bureaucracy over half our county and which has been dreamt up in private, over two years of secret meetings, by a cabal of six council leaders and six chief executives.

“Not only were back bench councillors deliberately excluded from this process, so were the people of South Essex and their elected MPs, who have never been formally briefed by Association of South Essex Local Authorities about the combined authority.”

Under the plans, the council leaders hope an elected mayor could get more devolved powers from the Government, along with a major boost in financial support for infrastructure.

They claim it could create 100,000 new jobs, 96,000 new homes and overhaul public transport.

However, without the support of local MPs it may be difficult to get Government approval.

Councillors have also criticised the plan over the idea of a new mayor overseeing the region. Southend Councillor Martin Terry said this would effectively turn Southend and Thurrock to being a “district council”.

Southend’s Labour council leader, Councillor Ian Gilbert, said: “I think the concerns are a combination of this being preliminary work and that things have moved quickly over the past month or so.

“I know it was the intention to speak to MPs prior to any formal decision being made.”

He added that MPs had been briefed “broadly” on the work council leaders have undertaken.

Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price said she had been briefed by Thurrock’s Conservative council leader Councillor Rob Gledhill, who also chairs the partnership of council leaders.

She added: “It is my firm belief that unless South Essex takes control of its own destiny then we will have development done to us rather than with us.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter