Not the time for local government revamp says Chelmsford City Council leader

Now is not the time for major political restructuring, the leader of Chelmsford City Council has argued, in an open letter signed by almost 30 other council leaders.

Councillor Stephen Robinson is equally critical of the government’s plans for sweeping changes of the planning system, which he warns could usher in a new era of slum housing.

Boris Johnson said the plans, which aim to stop local opponents blocking development in designated growth zones, were “long overdue”.

Critics say the changes could lead to “bad-quality housing” and loss of local control.

Cllr Robinson’s appeal comes ahead of the recovery and devolution white paper due to be published in September, setting out the government’s strategy on devolution and which will include plans for spending and local growth funding.

However, there are concerns that councils cannot afford to place extra resources into restructuring local government while they are still having to deal with plummeting revenue along with extra responsibilities in the battle against Covid-19.

Cllr Robinson said: “Now is not the time for a massive reorganisation of local councils, forcing it through.

“By all means encourage areas which want to go ahead with some kind of change and let them put proposals forward.

“That has to be a consensus across the county area.

“The trouble is that the government is forcing this on councils at a time when we have lots of other things to be concerned about.

“We are short of money to provide services so now is not the time to have a forced reorganisation.”

Talks have already started between a collective group of Basildon Borough Council; Brentwood Borough Council; Castle Point Borough Council; Essex County Council; Rochford District Council; Southend-on-Sea Borough Council and Thurrock Council, to discuss the creation of a combined authority led by a directly elected mayor with powers akin to that in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

However, it seems devolution plans for Essex will only be considered once more unitary councils are created within Essex aside from Southend and Thurrock.

Essex County Council previously said: “We welcomed the government’s announcement of a white paper in the autumn which would create the opportunity for better outcomes for residents, businesses and communities through a simpler, more streamlined system of local government.

“The Minister for Local Government, Simon Clarke MP, said he expected proposals for new unitary councils in county areas to come before any devolution deals. He was clear that structural reform needed to happen before devolved powers would be considered.”

Cllr Robinson added: “Why should we have to use office time and council money that is in short supply towards a forced reorganisation?

“It would be much better if proposals were allowed to emerge over a long time period by consensus.

“This comes as the government throws up the planning process potentially creating the slum housing of the future.

“They are throwing up planning and council structure at a time when we should be concentrating on renewal and recovery.”

A letter signed by 29 representatives of Lib Dem-run councils said: “We are not in principle opposed to unitary councils of reorganisation, but it should only ever be locally driven, designed to empower communities and respond to local needs. Now is not the time to be disbanding our high performing councils and creating new ones.

“Reorganisation may benefit some places, but not all and not now. Continuing with mass reorganisation at this time risks scarce resources being diverted away from the Covid recovery and other vital public services.

“The choice for us as council leaders will be ‘what do we stop doing on recovery in order to resource reorganisation. That is not a choice we wish to make.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter