Now is not the time for revamp, councils across Essex warn

Essex County Council

Essex County Council - Credit: Archant

Now is not the time for a local government revamp, an open letter signed by almost 30 council leaders has said.

The 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.

The leader of Chelmsford City Council, 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”.

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

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

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“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 including Essex County 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.

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.”

A spokesperson for the Government’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We have been asked by councils in some areas to invite them to submit a unitary proposal and we are considering these requests.

“We’re committed to levelling up all areas of the country and empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster. We’ll set out our detailed plans in the white paper that will be published in due course.”

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