The Leader introduced the
report and stated that any proposed merger between Thurrock and
Basildon Council’s would not be undertaken immediately or in
the near future, and highlighted that this Memorandum of
Understanding (MOU) only opened the conversation to consider
potential opportunities or risks from a merger, and to be as open
and transparent as possible. He explained that Basildon Council was
not a unitary authority, and therefore did not have control over
some services, such as Adult Social Care, Children’s Social
Care, or strategic highways; in comparison to Thurrock Council who
were a unitary authority and had control over all income and
expenditure. He added that as both Councils had two different
styles of governance, all aspects of every service would have to be
explored before a merger could be agreed, and this would take time
and input from a variety of people. He described how this report
was driven by central government, and their proposal for local
government reform and devolution. He stated that in between the two
lockdowns in 2020, central government had brought forward
regulations for local government reform, in line with their
manifesto commitments, and although this had now slowed due to the
pandemic, other authorities such as Essex County Council were
pushing forward their plans for reorganisation, which included
Thurrock. He felt that as Thurrock had been a unitary authority
since 1998, Essex County Council could not design Thurrock’s
future, and felt this highlighted why Thurrock needed to be at the
forefront of any local government reform.
The Leader stated that by signing the MOU, Thurrock and Basildon could find out all the necessary information before making a merger decision, and could find out the risks and opportunities. He added that the report had been seen by the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee, and they had questioned if residents would be involved in the decision. He reassured the Committee that the MOU would begin to evaluate the risks and opportunities, so residents and the Council were able to make an informed decision. He stated that once the costs and benefits had been evaluated, residents would be consulted. He thanked the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee for their comments and was pleased that they had agreed the recommendations. He added the Committee had also questioned the need for a merger, as some Members had felt that as Thurrock continued to grow, particularly with the recent announcement of the Freeport, the Council may not need to merge with Basildon. The Leader stated that all options would be considered as part of the MOU, including maintaining current ways of working. He felt that Thurrock needed to be prepared for all eventualities, including if central government legislation for local government reform was agreed, as was planned for summer 2021.
The Leader summarised and stated that he had spoken in detail with the Leader of Basildon Council, and they both felt that although this would not be a quick process, the MOU needed to be signed so both Councils could evaluate all options. He stated that Basildon had a large manufacturing base, such as the largest tractor factory in Europe, as well as aerospace and defence industries, which would need goods delivered from the Freeport and could therefore benefit Thurrock.
Councillor Coxshall thanked the Leader for his report and felt it was good to see Thurrock being as open and honest as possible. He felt that the MOU would let Thurrock decide what the best option was, and be on the front foot when decisions were made at central government level. Councillor Halden added that he felt it would be good to have the conversation with Basildon to find out the positives and negatives of a potential merger. He stated that the MOU was still at the non-committal stage, but felt it was good to hear overview and scrutiny comments, and that they had agreed all recommendations.
The Leader echoed these comments and felt that residents should not be concerned, as the MOU was simply to open a fact-finding conversation. He stated that the detail of any potential merger needed to be right, before residents were consulted, and this report provided openness and transparency. He stated that as Basildon were not a unitary authority, some of their council tax income was sent to Essex County Council as a precept to pay for services such as Adult Social Care, and Thurrock needed to consider this financial aspect through the fact-finding that would be undertaken in the MOU. He summarised and stated that the MOU would be going to the relevant Committee in Basildon tomorrow, but highlighted that the MOU did not agree any merger, and simply opened the conversation.
RESOLVED: That Cabinet:
1. Agreed to enter into a Memorandum in the form at Appendix 1 with Basildon Borough Council.
Reason for decision: as outlined in report.
This decision is subject to call-in.