BY James Miller Leader of Southend’s Confelicity Party.
NEWS of a ‘level 2’ devolution deal, that would see a new ‘Combined Authority’ of Essex, Southend and Thurrock, has been released to the public over the last few weeks.
Discussions are so far down the road between the Leaders of Essex County Council, Southend City Council, Thurrock Council and the Police Fire and Crime Commissioner, that the hope is the deal with the government can be settled before the Autumn budget on November 22 this year.
For those that do not know, devolution is about transferring powers from central to local government.
This has already taken place in a number of places throughout the UK, each with varying results, the most prominent example being London. So, a devolution deal in Essex is not an extraordinary proposition and there are reasons that it may make sense to consider it.
I first heard about the idea coming to Essex after being invited to a recent Chambers of Commerce event with the Deputy Leader of Essex County Council presenting.
I had assumed the meeting was to glean our views to feed into whether it was worth pursuing. Instead, we were told that ‘it was happening’.
Most invitees who asked questions at the Q&A were only disappointed that we weren’t going for a level 3 agreement, which would see a Directly Elected Mayor (DEM in devolution speak). I, myself, had not quite adjusted to just how late in the day it was and that my questions were more concerned with the concept rather than how it should be implemented and communicated.
It turns out that for a number of years, behind the scenes, discussions have been taking place to propose an ‘expression of interest’ to create this Combined Authority. It was supposed to come with a Directly Elected Mayor, but right or wrong, Southend Labour’s Cabinet, who were in power at the time of the discussions, passed a motion that prevented this.
They also passed a motion that protected Southend from losing any powers to any change. Without question, they did well on this latter point.
The deal is being finalised as we speak and after it is agreed it will then go out to public consultation.
For such a significant change, I would have thought that the public consultation might have started at the beginning and not the end of the process. What if the residents of Southend reject the idea? That’s a lot of work conducted by those involved and no doubt at great expense.
My feeling is that similar to the public consultation regarding the closure of ticket offices at train stations, and the public consultation Southend Labour were going to conduct after they decided they were going to charge to park in local parks, it might be assumed that it is just a tick box exercise.
However, for the sake of argument, let us believe that the consultation is coming and our views are fundamental to the outcome.
What, then, does it all mean for us?
It is told that this new, legally recognised authority, would be given more powers from central government and more money over the whole of Essex. It would not replace any of the councils and they would continue to oversee their current remit.
Three particular areas might include skills, economic growth and transport. Research from the Local Government Association (LGA), points toward dramatic improvement in devolved areas such as Greater Manchester and Liverpool.
As a local party, one of the pillars of Southend Confelicity’s existence is indeed local empowerment, and so this news might seem to fit in quite nicely with our vision.
However, the empowerment to Essex rather than Southend muddies the waters as it is hard to tell whether we will in fact be swallowed up by Essex or, as is the narrative, it will unleash Southend’s potential as it benefits from more money and power.
There are so many questions to be asked before I could declare whether I am in favour or not, but from what I have read I am not against it, I just need to see the detail, as no doubt our party will need to.
Ideally, Southend would be empowered with the money and power on offer to the Combined Authority of Essex, Southend and Thurrock. I would vote for that in a heartbeat because that is what Southend Confelicity are all about – local. But this is what is in front of us now.
My hope, after the details are published, is that I will be so strongly in favour that I and Southend Confelicity become huge advocates and ambassadors.
All I want to hear is that it will end homelessness, providing the right mental health provision; reduce class sizes in schools; reduce queue times in the NHS including that we can see a GP quickly; local business can thrive again to create jobs; rescue Southend High Street; our sea will be free of sewage; our roads and pavements will be fixed; and we have enough money to turn the street lights back on to 100%, cut our grass more than once a year and empty our bins weekly. Oh, and to top it off, ensure Southend United will thrive regardless of ownership!
Too much to ask? Perhaps, but those are just some of the issues we need sorting out, and if this significant change doesn’t address them, then I would ask what is the point?
This is either a huge opportunity that we need to get behind or a new layer of bureaucracy and authority that will further slow the slow progress we have today.
Some argue our politicians are voted in and they themselves are empowered to make decisions on our behalf, but there are occasions where we need to dust off our apathy and this, I believe, is one of those times.
Assuming our opinions do count, research as much as you can, and voice loudly your concerns as per what you find.
For further information visit: southendconfelicityparty.co.uk.
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