Published: 11:52, 19 July 2019
| Updated: 12:06, 19 July 2019
Council chiefs have threatened to break away from a regional “powerhouse” for the south east in protest of government reforms they say will give them less say on boosting the economy.
Ministers want more business people appointed to local enterprise partnerships - and fewer councillors.
Kent councils belong to SELEP - the South East Local Enterprise Partnership - which decides what priority major regeneration schemes should have across an area that encompasses more than 30 local authorities - including East Sussex, Essex, Kent, Medway, Southend and Thurrock.
The change in the make-up is designed to speed up projects aimed at kick-starting the economy, such as transport links and regeneration projects.
In the case of SELEP - the largest outside London - the changes would see just six places allocated to 36 councils - radically diminishing their ability to decide and influence major schemes and projects.
Opposition among councils by all parties to the reforms could lead to a breakaway stand-alone group in Kent and Medway being set up.
Cllr Paul Carter, leader of Kent County Council, warned councils could be sidelined and unable to participate in debate about schemes in their own areas.
He said: “There is growing unrest up and down the country at ministers’ insistence to change the governance arrangements for SELEP which has the largest population of anywhere in the country.
"From April, the board will have 20 members, two thirds of which will have to be drawn from the business sector, leaving just six places for 36 local authorities.”
He said that many councils would not have any representation on the slimmed-down board even though they had planning powers.
A smaller LEP going for “UDI” - a universal declaration of independence - might be a better option, he added.
“Working with Medway, we would have to decide whether to apply to break up the LEP.
"I am not convinced the changes benefit the business community and residents of Kent.”
Opposition Liberal Democrat leader on KCC Cllr Rob Bird said: “We all understand that business leaders have an awful lot of skills and experience and we should value that.
"But at the end of the day, one of the criticisms we hear about LEPs is their lack of transparency and the proposals as they stand only take the process out of the local governments in the country.
“It is very important that we have, at the very least, business leaders from Kent not from 100 miles away.
"Having a Kent and Medway LEP makes a lot of sense.”
Labour group leader Cllr Dara Farrell said the changes “typified the approach of central government to local government.”
He added: “With the government ensuring a majority of business representatives, local authorities are being sent a message: to be seen but not heard.”
"It is very important that we have, at the very least, business leaders from Kent not from 100 miles away..." Cllr Rob Bird, Kent County Council
He said there were particular concerns about how funding for transport schemes would be decided.
“It is councils who are best placed to lead strategic growth; a decision has been made to dilute the mandate of democratically-elected councils.”
Ministers have defended the changes.
Speaking on a visit to Kent James Brokenshire, local government minister, said: “I know there has been a discussion and debate about LEPs but we have completed our review and had recommendations which we have put in place.
"But does that mean councils do not have a strong role and strong position? Absolutely not.
"It is about this fusion to develop more jobs and more prosperity; it is about entrepreneurs but also very firmly about councils and a combination that can look forward to a more positive future.”