So last week was the inaugural meeting of Basildon Council’s new ‘Local Government Reorganisation and Transition Committee’, the presumptuously-named full-blown service committee that the Labour-led Administration have set up to ‘consider’ the issue of Local Government Reform (LGR).
To be fair, the Government is preparing a White Paper on what some would argue is a long-overdue reorganisation of local government in this country and the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto made a clear commitment to full devolution across England. But that is not currently expected to emerge until some time next year and is certainly not a burning priority at the present time.
Nevertheless, ahead of the White Paper, the Administration has been advancing its own vision for reform here in Basildon Borough, which you may have read about recently.
Basildon Labour have for many years played a game of divide and rule in Basildon, pitting their voters in Basildon New Town against the ‘posh’ Tory voters north of the A127, and setting up Essex County Council (ECC) as a sort of extension of that ‘Tory mafia’. This ploy has also been a stock-in-trade of the various so-called ‘Independents’ that litter Basildon.
It is understandable. When the Conservative Party currently have six out of the nine local county seats and ECC itself is overwhelmingly Conservative-controlled, it is hardly surprising that the other parties try to set it up as a hate figure and lampoon it as some kind of aloof set of overlords, bullying and neglecting us.
While I am certainly not an unambiguous cheerleader for ECC – which I do tend to regard as rather North Essex-centric (a very strong argument for electing more Tories in South Essex!) – it is worth noting that ECC is, in fact, an award-winning local authority. And, when it comes down to it, I doubt most residents are particular fans of Basildon Borough Council (BBC) either.
True to form, since taking back power in 2019, the self-styled ‘Rainbow Alliance’ of Labour and Independents have been banging the drum for what they like to call ‘Basexit’; the divorce of the Borough of Basildon from ECC to form a ‘unitary authority’. But it has, in reality, long been accepted even by advocates for unitarisation that Basildon is simply far too small to form a unitary authority by itself and, were it to pursue such a course, would need to merge with one or more neighbouring authorities in order to create a unitary that would be viable.
More recently, the Administration, working through the shadowy and secretive ‘Association of South Essex Local Authorities’ (ASELA), agreed to pursue the formation of a ‘South Essex Combined Authority’, which envisions Basildon combining with Brentwood, Castle Point, Rochford, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock to create a South Essex ‘super-unitary’. Basildon Conservatives have previously outlined our skepticism about such a plan.
Those reservations notwithstanding, however, I had hoped – perhaps displaying my naïveté – that the Committee might actually engage in a genuine intellectual process, look evenhandedly at multiple options and critically assess the optimal arrangements to deliver for our residents. Alas, no. The meeting very quickly descended into a ‘County-bashing’ session and it seems pretty clear to me that what will actually happen is that the officers will work firmly to the Administration’s brief and weight everything in favour of delivering their preferred model, the South Essex mega-council.
This is disappointing to me, because I accept that change is coming. Many councillors have a different view. There is great diversity of opinion within the Conservative Group on this issue. I know some of my colleagues are quite enthusiastic about reform, while others say ‘If it ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. As I told the Committee in my speech, speaking for myself, I am not entirely sure it ‘ain’t broke.
I am far from an undiluted admirer of the current multi-layered model of local government, such as we enjoy here in Basildon. As a local borough councillor, I am routinely faced with residents who simply do not know (or care) that ECC are responsible for highways, for example, but BBC is responsible for things like planning and waste services. The fact that some areas of the borough also have parish councils, but others do not, merely adds to the confusion.
I am resolved, for my own part, to keep an open-mind on better arrangements that will better serve the residents I am elected to represent but I have put the Administration on notice that I have no time for self-indulgent obsessing over our own constitutional arrangements, which seems to be a perennial preoccupation of the Left-wing parties. In the midst of a global pandemic, by no means can such naval-gazing be regarded as a pressing matter and should not detract from the other infinitely more important thing that call upon the Council’s time and resources.
It is doubly-concerning, therefore, that this issue now has a full service committee of the Council devoted to it – and all the officer and other resources that entails – other than the far more obviously suitable vehicle of a simple working group of councillors or, at most, a sub-committee. Indeed, at one point the Labour chairman of the Committee was asked directly what powers the Committee had in terms of decision-making and her response was a somewhat surprising admission that, ultimately, all the major decisions will still to be taken by the Policy and Resources Committee, which is chaired by the Leader of the Council.
Nonetheless, the Committee exists now and I and my colleagues will play our part. But I shall not be dancing to the Administration’s tune. Despite the Chairman’s angry protestations to the contrary, the current Administration has absolutely no mandate. Even if one ignores the cancelled elections (and both the Chairman and, indeed, the Leader of the Council’s terms of office were up in May), not one single Labour or Independent councillor stood for election a year ago pledging to enter into coalition with one another. That was a deal stitched-up behind closed doors and designed to exclude the Tories from power, despite us remaining the largest single party on the Council. It is a ‘Coalition of the Losers’, ruling a council in no overall control by ganging up against the only party with seats in every part of the borough. So I shall not be conceding anything to them. They are the least legitimate Administration to govern BBC in my lifetime.
Copies of correspondence between ASELA and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government make it pretty apparent that the ‘South Essex mega-council’ is really a non-starter and I have also seen a letter from the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, in which he makes clear that the Government does not intend to force any ‘top-down’ reforms and wants to see proper, locally-led reforms. I for one will be consulting with those that elected me closely before I agree to any new model for delivering their local services.