The Chair stated that
Councillor Gledhill would be presenting the report in his role as
Leader of the Council, and thanked him for his attendance at the
Councillor Gledhill introduced the item and stated that a discussion had taken place at the previous Cabinet meeting in February regarding the proposed Memorandum of Understanding with Basildon Council, which related to proposed local government reform. He stated that in between lockdowns in 2020 the government had proposed local government reform and devolution, which had been a long-term manifesto commitment, and had decided upon three trial local authorities in September 2020, which had required full Member consent. He explained that proposed local authority reorganisation now only required majority Member consent, and stated that any potential reorganisation would not take place for the next few years. Councillor Gledhill then described how Thurrock had become a unitary authority in 1998, and as a unitary authority had responsibility for all income and expenditure, including for adult social care. He stated that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) would open the conversation between Thurrock and Basildon regarding any future reorganisation, and would explore the positives and negatives of any proposed merger. He stated that a merger between the two local authorities would double the resident population, which could increase business rate income, but would also increase expenses for adult social care, as currently Basildon was not responsible for this area of expenditure, and instead paid a precept to Essex County Council.
Councillor Gledhill commented that the MOU would look at all aspects of any proposed merger, including potential costs and impact on services for residents and businesses. He felt that there were currently a lot of unknowns regarding any potential merger, and more information was needed which would be sought through the signing of the MOU. He felt that a merger of the two local authorities could be a positive endeavour, but highlighted that both councils wanted as much information as possible. He explained that any proposed merger would not begin now, but felt that central government were pushing for local government reform, and Thurrock needed to be moving forwards.
The Chair thanked Councillor Gledhill for this presentation and report, and questioned the broader context for a merger. He asked whether the current local government operating processes would not be viable in future. Councillor Gledhill replied and stated that in 2020 central government had felt that unitary authorities should have a resident population of 300-500,000, and Thurrock would be able to reach this figure if a merger took place with Basildon Council. He highlighted that he could not speak for central government, but felt that there was currently no rush for local authority mergers or any central government commitment to scrap current local government organisation. The Chair asked if local government reorganisation would be a medium term goal for central government, and questioned what would happen if the Council did not act immediately. Councillor Gledhill responded and stated that Thurrock wanted to be on the front foot for any government reform, and wanted to be in a strong position which had been carefully evaluated, in case central government began to push local government reform in future. Councillor Gledhill stated that the MOU would mean that Thurrock and Basildon could officially consider the possibility of mergers, but did not mean that Thurrock could not look at other options for reform. He added that if the MOU found that there would be no benefit merging Thurrock and Basildon then the process could be stopped.
The Chair then questioned how residents would be engaged in the process, and if they would be able to have their say regarding any mergers. Councillor Gledhill stated that although he could not pre-empt central government policies, Thurrock residents would be able to have their say if the Council decided to merge. He explained that the Council needed to consider all costs and benefits, as well as looking at all proposals in a greater level of detail, before asking residents for their opinion, and stated that the MOU would promote openness and transparency throughout the process. The Chair asked what the next steps in the process would be. Councillor Gledhill replied and explained that there was currently not a high enough level of detail to be able to outline any detailed next steps. He felt that all costs and benefits needed to be worked through before any decisions were made, but explained that Thurrock wanted to ensure it was the right size and decisions were still made locally and had a local impact. He stated that there needed to be more discussion between Thurrock and Basildon, but the MOU would outline these discussions and could be used as a national template.
Councillor Duffin thanked Councillor Gledhill for his report and felt that the Council needed to understand all positives and negatives of the proposed merger, and needed as much information as possible. He felt that central government were proposing lots of changes in the next ten years, and Thurrock wanted to be at the forefront of this change. He added that a proposed merger could be a good future opportunity, but highlighted the need to consider all options, as well as what it could look like if Thurrock maintained the status quo. Councillor Ralph agreed that a potential merger could be a good opportunity, but wanted to ensure that residents in the west of the borough would continue to be considered in all decisions. Councillor Ralph also sought assurance that Thurrock would not become the housebuilding area of the new authority, as he felt that other Councils could use Thurrock to meet housebuilding targets, particularly with the news of the successful Freeport bid and the growth this would bring. Councillor Gledhill responded and stated that approximately 30,000 new houses needed to be built within Thurrock, and he understood resident’s concerns about new houses being built within their local communities. He stated that if Thurrock and Basildon merged, there would still be a planning regime, as well as a Local Plan, which would ensure Thurrock did not bear the brunt of housebuilding requirements. He stated that the new Freeport would improve infrastructure, the local economy, and the lives of local residents, and felt that a larger unitary authority could maximise this benefit across the south Essex region.
Councillor Rice stated that as Thurrock continued to build houses, the population was predicted to rise from 170,000 to 300,000, which would bring it into line with government’s proposed guidelines for the size of a local authority. He felt that Thurrock had experienced lots of growth, including through the Local Plan and housebuilding, and asked if this would be enough so that Thurrock could remain a separate unitary authority. Councillor Gledhill responded that the MOU would look at future aspirations across both boroughs, and would work to understand both Local Plans and local development schemes, including the impact this could have on housebuilding and local population levels. He agreed that Thurrock had experienced lots of growth, and explained that the MOU could find a merger would not be beneficial and would therefore look at other options. He felt that a merger between Thurrock and Basildon could be a good opportunity as Basildon currently had lots of industry and infrastructure, including the largest tractor plant in Europe, and Thurrock could benefit from this too.
The Chair summarised and thanked Councillor Gledhill for his attendance and presentation.
RESOLVED: That the Committee:
1. Commented on the report and the proposal for consideration by Cabinet at their meeting on 10 March 2021.
Councillor Gledhill left the meeting at 7.59pm