South Essex council leaders accuse county of ‘power grab’

Council bosses in Southend and Thurrock have called a plan for Essex County Council to take control of the entire county “too large” to be democratic in a scathing letter to the Government.

For months council leaders have been examining ways the county can be reshaped to reduce the number of smaller authorities and attract a more joined up approach to building infrastructure.

Essex County Council believes the best approach would be to entirely eliminate smaller district councils and replace them with up to four unitary authorities that oversee select portions of the county.

Above those councils would be a “Greater Essex Mayoral Combined Authority” which would operate above the newly formed councils and be led by an elected mayor who has oversight of budgets, county-wide development schemes, the police and fire services, and planning.

But council leaders from across south Essex, including Southend and Thurrock which already operate as unitary authorities, have written a letter to the Government to say one overarching authority being in control of 2million people would be “too large an area for effective democratic accountability”.

Furthermore, the councils have described Essex as being a county of two halves, with a commercial and industrial south and a rural north.

The council leaders believe this divide means an elected mayor working outside of the south Essex area may not work in the interest of all areas.

Southend Independent councillor Martin Terry branded the county council’s plan a “power grab” and an attempt by the authority to “reinvent” itself.

He said: “We pulled out of Essex County Council many years ago due to a lack of support from that council and our lack of ability to make nuanced decisions.

“Going back to that arrangement would be like back to the future. There is definitely a north and south divide and we don’t want to be under the control of county bosses.

“I think this is a power grab and an attempt by Essex County Council to reinvent itself.”

However, Essex County Council believes the arrangement would make a council that is large enough to be “effective strategically”, and to be “taken seriously” by the Government in a post-covid economy. It also believes the reduced number of councils would make accountability clearer.

The plan has also been endorsed by Simon Clarke, secretary of state for regional growth and local government.

Mr Clarke wrote in a letter addressed to county council leader David Finch in August that he “warmly” welcomes the plan and looks forward to discussions.

Meanwhile, a plan from the south Essex council leaders to create a South Essex Combined Authority has been largely dismissed by the secretary of state who said it was not clear “that South Essex would be the right geography for such an arrangement”.

MPs have also criticised the south Essex plan, which has been overseen by Thurrock council leader Rob Gledhill, because it was created in secret with almost no consultation with the public, councillors or the MPs themselves.

Southend Council will discuss the plans further during a Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee due to take place on Thursday evening.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter