South Essex council bosses accused of holding ‘clandestine’ meetings

A partnership of council leaders across south Essex may have been holding “clandestine and undercover” meetings to plan a new combined authority and introduce a directly elected mayor, a councillor has claimed.

The Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA) has become a topic of controversy after revealing plans to create a South Essex Combined Authority that could be led by a directly elected mayor.

The group says creating the combined authority will lead to a major boost in infrastructure funding from the Government, yet it was planned without the knowledge of councillors, MPs or residents.

Southend’s council leader Ian Gilbert also revealed that council leaders who make up ASELA signed a Memorandum of Understanding that classes all meetings as “private” – meaning there is no record of what has been discussed.

Independent Southend councillor Keith Evans is now urging the council to carry out a full investigation into why the memorandum was signed when it appears to violate key codes of conduct for public office relating to “openness” and “honesty”.

He said: “The last Conservative administration signed the agreement as part of a collaboration between different councils to work together to solve some issues we can’t solve on our own.

“All of a sudden, we have a white paper talking about us getting together to create a new layer of governance and being offered money, that is not collaboration anymore.

“The current administration should have walked away.”

He continued: “We are also being told there are no minutes from meetings. I have never known an organisation not to have minutes from meetings.

“I understand they can be confidential but we were specifically told there are no minutes.

“Somewhere, someone must have a record of something. It is as if people are ducking and diving and it does not sit right with me.

“Not even our MPs know about this, so it is a real clandestine and undercover operation.”

He added councillors cannot be expected to make an informed decision on the issue when there is so much secrecy. He compared the plan to “going up a blind alley for a pot of money”.

Cllr Gilbert revealed on Friday the concerns have led to ASELA agreeing to start making all agendas and minutes public going forward.

He said: “We recognise that as we progress we need to be more transparent and more open. Today we made the formal decision that from now on we will be making minutes and agendas publicly available.

“I would stress that we are being transparent by taking our intention to start this process to the council so members can have their say.”

He also confirmed that while some rough notes had been taken during meetings, no formal minutes exist.

Further complicating the issue of transparency over a combined authority, Cllr Gilbert explained the Government does not want the amount of investment discussed being publicly available or the details of how the council would achieve the goals they have proposed.

Basildon Conservatives, who are against the proposal, have also spoken out over the secrecy, criticising the group for not being open to scrutiny.

ASELA is made up of leaders from Southend Council, Thurrock, Rochford, Basildon, Brentwood, Castle Point and Essex.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter