There currently seems to be several widely adopted arguments which could be applied to help form some concept of a regional connection across the whole of Sussex by Councils, MPs and other groups of agencies such as businesses and the voluntary sector. Indeed this could potentially go beyond Sussex into Kent and Surrey as these three historic County areas are often linked together in a range of structures adopted by various agencies. In most of the Governments regional approaches in the past and indeed still today, there is a link with these three areas to Hampshire and North to Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. This varies from the so called Local Enterprise Partnerships most of which are not local in any credible sense. The connection between Kent and Essex was set up after the coalition Government abolished the previous Regional Assemblies and Regional Development Agencies and then called for LEPs to be formed by businesses which they then ignored. Once Kent and Essex defined what they wanted, the Government then forced East Sussex to join them to prevent it from being independent and to reduce conflict between Kent and Essex Councils. There has been many positive aspects achieved by the South East LEP but there have also been gaps or a lack of links between SELEP and the other Sussex LEPs which frustrates Sussex agencies that need a coherent approach across the whole of the area.
The need right now for MPs and Councils to work together regionally is clearly essential as our nation is dealing with COVID and a local regional approach that would include businesses and charities would make any activities more effective. Such an approach can both help to protect the residents and also support some of the high risk businesses that are experiencing difficulties due to the Coronavirus. Clearly this will require the public sector agencies to work together in a coherent way and to engage with economic agencies such as the Chambers of Commerce. If in a very speedy approach this could be achieved, our area might be able to find ways to both set out demands from the Government when we are willing to accept their proposals and equally to stand up against it when we feel they are making unreasonable or unhelpful demands. Both of these approaches would reflect how Liverpool and Manchester have responded in recent days.
Along with the current COVID challenge and while the Government is making a complete mess of its Brexit negotiations, there has been a call in several areas for large County areas to set themselves up as a regional organisation. Two weeks ago a suggestion came from Robert Jenrick for Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset to set themselves up as unitary authorities. This came a day after a comment that took place in the House of Lords which was focusing on the Constituencies Bill and it included this comment
“Unless we change the rules, a small population shift in Kent could, for example, require major changes not just across Kent but in East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey and involve the creation of illogical seats that cross those county boundaries. In every region or state it will be the same.”
Now of course if the current Government was Labour led, most of our local MPs would be opposed to anything that it proposed, while one or two would be in favour, whereas, because we have a Conservative Government, most of our MPs will support it whatever happens irrespective of its mistakes and bad decisions. That conflict between political parties is certainly shared by many people who are passionate supporters of one party or another. However it is clear that we are all part of one local setting and we need to work together if we are going to be able to strengthen our communities. It seems to me that we need to find a way of persuading the 15 two tier upper Local Authorities in Sussex along with the 16 MPs to work together as well as with the 250 town and parish Councils in a way that is effective. That does not demand a unitary approach as called for by Robert Jenrick although clearly there may be some financial benefits if unitary changes can be established. It is certainly clear that if some of the 16 Sussex MPs were willing to work together in a new radical way, there could be a much wider sense of representation compared to how a single MP for a single constituency works. It is clear that any formal reformation of the democracy in our nation is something that the two largest political parties want to resist. However our nation is facing very significant challenges and all local communities need their MPs to work differently than they have in the past.
What is clear to me is that “HOW” we carve up regions for ‘Local Government’ needs a complete and thorough reform. I live on the northern border of Essex in a ‘genteel’ county of Hertfordshire. Last week, Essex County Council (no doubt for good reasons) VOLUNTEERED to be put into Tier 2 Covid restrictions. Well…………. OK – BUT
The two UNITARY authorities; Thurrock and Southend contained in the overall ESSEX council would have NONE of it. There was even talk of not allowing travel from a region of Tier 1 restrictions to a region of Tier 2 restrictions. (So that means I can’t do my regular grocery shopping in Harlow??) Bishop’s Stortford does offer equal and reasonable substitutes (but gasoline is 1.5 p / liter more expensive there for a start!!!
Essex is NOT a ‘homogeneous’ county. You have the great urban sprawl of Basildon, Billericky, Thurrock, Southend, combined with the remote rural setups of Manningtree on the coast and a few miles away the big set p of Colchester. Are we really saying what suits one part suits ALL ?
I question that. Time for some clever thinking (which the current Civil Service seem remarkably devoid of!!)