Rift emerges within Southend Council over combined authority plan

Council leaders in Southend have been left divided over a plan to create a combined authority that would cover all south Essex and potentially be overseen by a directly elected mayor.

Details of the biggest shake-up to south Essex governance for more than a generation were unveiled on Wednesday by a partnership of council leaders from Southend, Thurrock, Basildon, Brentwood, Castle Point and Rochford.

The council bosses, who make up the Association of South Essex Local Authorities, claim the plan will revitalise the region and create thousands of jobs but Southend councillors say it will be “undemocratic” and take investment away from the borough.

Independent councillor and deputy leader of Southend Council, Ron Woodley, indicated the plan has already caused a rift in the joint administration which is made up of Labour, Independents and the Liberal Democrats.

He claimed Labour council leader Ian Gilbert had not told him about the plan until just days before it was made public and said “no one has the authority” to make such a major change to the way the region is governed.

He said: “I am very disappointed we’ve come to this point.

“When I look through these plans, they are things we should be doing anyway. We don’t need a massive conglomerate to do it.

“This is putting in another layer of governance over all south Essex councils and I want to know what powers we will lose.

“Look at other areas that have done this and what comes with it. The mayoralty oversees highways, adult social care, children’s care, all the things we could lose control of.”

Liberal Democrat leader, Councillor Carole Mulroney, also refused to back the plans due to concerns about an elected mayor.

She said: “Whilst I understand the need for the council to be at the forefront of negotiations with Government on infrastructure funding for South Essex, I am not in favour of a directly elected mayor which in my view detracts from a democratically independent Southend, which we achieved when we  fought so hard to establish our independence from Essex.”

Council leaders have put the plan together in the hope that it will attract major investment from the Government to create 100,000 new jobs, 5,000 apprenticeships, 96,000 new homes and infrastructure improvements to public transport, cycleways, footpaths, health facilities and schools.

Councillor Martin Terry (Ind), who oversees community safety, called it a “backwards step for Southend”.

He said: “At the moment Southend is upper tier unitary authority with the same powers as a county council. Why hand off those powers to distant elected mayor and become essentially a district council again. I don’t like the smell of this at all.”

However, the leader of the council, Ian Gilbert, has promised Southend Council would retain its authority and the new combined authority would gain its powers from central government.

He said: “This has happened in other areas and it will give us a package of extra funding and powers. I don’t think people should get hung up on the idea of an elected mayor as this is not a preferred solution.

“It is something the Government is pushing but there are other models without an elected mayor. The reason it is included in the plans is because we don’t want to pre-judge Government but it is not something south Essex is pushing for directly.”

Conservative leader, Cllr Tony Cox called it “largest change in local government in Southend this century” and said his party would scrutinise the plans “vigorously” to ensure Southend remains the priority.

Council leaders will discuss the plan at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter