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Essex authorities in talks about MCAs and unitaries

07 August 2020

Councils in Essex are in talks about creating one or more mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) for the historic county and a unitary structure of councils. But a proposal for an MCA covering South Essex does not appear to have the support of ministers or Essex County Council.

The Government has told the Essex authorities that a unitary structure of local government is a precondition for creating MCAs.

The historic county of Essex comprises Essex County Council, 12 district/borough/city councils, and the unitary authorities of Southend and Thurrock.

Essex, Southend and Thurrock are the local transport authorities. If one or more MCAs were created, they would take over the local transport authority functions.

Council leaders and chief executives met last week to discuss possible reforms. An Essex County Council spokesman told LTT that work was likely to focus on creating between two and four unitary authorities within the historic boundaries of the county. 

The number of MCAs is unclear. One possibility would be just to create one spanning the historic county – Essex, Thurrock and Southend. This has administrative attractions because the Essex Police and Crime Commissioner and the Essex Fire and Rescue Service already function on this geography.

Essex County Council regards 2023 as the earliest date for introducing a unitary structure. The spokesman said the creation of MCA(s) could be to the same timeline but would “more likely be sequenced” to follow on.

Southend Council last month backed the idea of creating a South Essex MCA. It would be an evolution of the Association of South Essex Local Authorities, which was formed in 2018 and comprises Southend, Thurrock, and four Essex boroughs (Basildon, Brentwood, Castle Point and Rochford).  

A governance review for the six councils by consultant Shared Intelligence says: “There is no organisation with an unambiguous focus of South Essex, and which is capable of delivering a long-term programme with the support or devolved powers and resources from government.” 

It says a South Essex MCA would provide a “more coherent voice” for the area in the new Transport East regional grouping of local authorities (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Thurrock, Southend), and the work of the Thames Estuary Commission. 

But Simon Clarke, the minister for regional growth and local government, has written to the South Essex councils saying: “I will always judge every proposal on its merits. However, it is not clear to me on first sight that South Essex would be the right geography for such an arrangement, and I would be happy to discuss this further.”

The Essex County Council spokesman said his council also opposes the South Essex MCA model.

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