An Essex town is seeking independence from the rest of the county in what could be one of the biggest shake-ups in Essex’s political landscape for decades.
Basildon Borough Council has already kick-started proceedings to break away from Essex County Council and join up with Thurrock.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been submitted to the government, which could lead to the formation of the South West Essex Unitary Authority.
At the moment, areas within the borough’s boundary – including the towns of Basildon, Wickford, Billericay, Pitsea, Laindon and a number of smaller villages – operate under a two-tier system.
It means that certain decisions can be made at a borough level, but other duties like road maintenance, public transport and education are carried out at a county-level.
But that could all be about to change if Basildon breaks away in what has been dubbed by council leader Gavin Callaghan as a “once in a generation opportunity”.
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Thurrock is already a unitary authority, having split from the county in 1998, meaning that they do not fall within Essex County Council’s remit.
The two areas have now kick-started proceedings to join together and become a larger unitary authority.
Cllr Callaghan said: “We already understand that in our region, Basildon and Thurrock share a meaningful geography.
“Many local families live and work across the borough borders.
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“What we are seeking to explore is whether or not this is a once in a generation opportunity to put the decisions and issues that affect local people back into the hands of local people.
“That is why we see this as the start of an exciting process, and we welcome this agreement to get the ball rolling.
“The government has made clear that two-tier local government has had its day and unitary authorities are the direction of travel. Reform is inevitable.
“We can’t let the government or Essex County Council decide on our future.”
Cllr Callaghan added: “Our Memorandum of Understanding ensures Basildon and Thurrock will be the masters of our own shared destiny.
“We want to be on the front foot and looking at all the possibilities for local government reform.
“We know this is a long road ahead and there may be other options we will look at along the way.
“However, South West Essex has an identity and an industry that could make for a formidable council to rival any major UK city. This is a chance we must seize.”
The leader of Thurrock Council, Cllr Rob Gledhill, has also praised the plans that would join what he calls the “beating heart” of the county together.
Cllr Gledhill said: “South West Essex is alive with opportunity.
“It is the beating heart of the Essex economy and a major player in linking London with the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
“Yet there is so much more that can be unlocked and achieved for our residents and our businesses.
“Our ambition is for the people and businesses of Thurrock and Basildon to realise the potential of this region and to make sure that growth is inclusive – putting them at the forefront of the opportunities that local decision-making at the most local level through proper devolution can achieve.
“As we move to making this future a reality for South West Essex, we, the leaders of Thurrock and Basildon, are publishing a Memorandum of Understanding which commits both of our councils to joint working and looking at all reform options, including the creation of a new unitary South West Essex Council that is comprised of our two authorities.”
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The next steps in the process lie with the government, who plan to publish a Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper at some point this year.
The process was meant to start last year, but was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That document will outline the future of local government with the expected trend of the creation of more unitaries.
The document will take into account Basildon and Thurrock’s MOU, as well as previously announced plans for a grander South Essex Authority, which would also include councils in Brentwood, Castle Point, Rochford and Southend-on-Sea.
If changes are agreed, it would be the first major change to government at a local level in Essex for more than two decades.