Privilege - current Colchester Mayor Nick Cope, being dressed by town Serjeant Paul Lind


Sir Bob Russell (above), High Steward of Colchester, is the only person still with a public profile in Colchester from when local government in England was last re-organised 46 years ago. Here he gives a personal opinion on how an expected announcement by the Government might impact locally, with him suggesting a restoration of the historic boundary which had existed since the 11th century until 1974.

SPECULATION that the Government is planning sweeping changes to how local government operates in England has prompted some to conclude that among the changes will be an end to the historic position of Mayor of Colchester, which dates back to 1635.

This is the oldest surviving borough mayor in Essex and one of the oldest in the country.

That is a pessimistic view which must be challenged. I will come to that later.

First, the expectation among many is that Colchester Borough Council and Tendring District Council will be abolished – along with Essex County Council – and that these two will form a single local authority known as a “unitary council”, in simple terms a merger of all local government services under a single council.

There is some sense in that.

Essex County Council, based at Chelmsford, is remote.

The notion that Colchester is too small to be a unitary council is not true, as I explained in my previous article published in the Gazette on September 3.

Thurrock, on the Thameside of Essex, has a smaller population than Colchester but a few years ago was able to break away from Essex to become a unitary council, as did Southend, which is not much bigger than Colchester.

However, being realistic, if the Government wants unitary councils then Colchester and Tendring merging does have some merit – but only if within the unitary structure there is devolution to areas where local decisions can be made by locally elected councillors.

It would be fantastic to have “home rule” at grassroots level returned to Colchester as it was before the 1974 re-organisation.

Those who can remember how local councils operated until then will know that today’s Colchester Borough Council was created by the merger of the then Colchester Council with two small Urban District Councils at Wivenhoe and West Mersea and around 30 villages within a local government area known as Lexden and Winstree Rural District Council.

Confusingly, the area of urban Colchester known as Lexden was not part of the council area of Lexden and Winstree RDC, which are the names of two Anglo Saxon “hundreds” which existed prior to the Norman invasion in 1066.

While overwhelmingly I fear the worst with the proposed new changes, I predict a further decline in local democracy and local accountability – local government more akin to how heavy-handed officialdom operates in Communist China for example – from the carnage there could possibly be one positive outcome for the pre-1974 Borough of Colchester.

Sadly, this would not be a return to the powers which the borough once enjoyed, as I described in my previous article, under the direction of locally elected councillors, but in terms of prestige and civic pride it could be a renaissance.

With our first Royal Charter in 1189, Colchester could reclaim a sense of the status it had enjoyed for almost 800 years until the last re-organisation of local government 46 years ago.

The 1974 re-organisation led to the abolition in Essex of the small historic boroughs of Maldon, Harwich and Saffron Walden.

But all three retained the office of mayor and their identity with a town council operating with powers delegated to it from the new district councils which had taken over.

The same could happen to a restored town council in Colchester, but with a population within the pre-1974 boundaries now nudging towards 120,000 it should be given significantly greater delegated powers – making it more truly “local government” than would otherwise be the case.

And it would enable the position of Mayor of Colchester to remain or, more accurately, to be restored to what had previously been the case over the centuries prior to 1974, with the Mayor of Colchester being someone an elected representative from the town.

The Mayoral Suite at the Town Hall would continue to provide the necessary civic pride which should be afforded to the oldest surviving borough in Essex.

It is Colchester’s Town Hall.

It should remain a focal point for local government in Britain’s oldest recorded town, from a site where local government has been located for 900 or more years from when the Normans built Colchester’s first Moot Hall.

All the surrounding villages have their own parish councils, so with a unitary council covering the whole of north Essex they would no longer be part of the geographic territory of the restored Colchester Council which hopefully would be permitted to retain the word “borough” in its title.

The restoration of the pre-1974 boundaries would also enable the reunification of Lexden which illogically was dismembered when ward boundaries were changed in 2016.

The western boundary of Colchester – the man-made defensive Grymes Dyke, built by the Ancient British Trinovante tribe long before the Roman invasion in AD:43 – had for centuries separated Lexden from Stanway but four years ago the Local Government Boundary Commission swept aside centuries of history when it breached this historic boundary.

Part of Lexden was shunted off to form a ward which includes the villages of West Bergholt, Eight Ash Green and Aldham – with the other part of Lexden, including Lexden Parish Church and Lexden Primary School, moved into Prettygate Ward.

With the formation of a unitary council covering north Essex, restoring the pre-1974 boundary would allow historic Colchester to reassert its previous geographic identity and also allow the reunification of Lexden from the artificial division which was inflicted on it in 2016.

While I do not welcome the thought of Colchester merging with Tendring, if that is what the Government is intent on doing then we have to do our best to ensure that within the new set-up the civic role of mayor of our historic borough is maintained and that the historic boundaries of Colchester are restored to what they were up to 1974.