SECRET meetings to re-shape how south Essex is governed cost taxpayers more than £1.2million, it has been revealed.

Over the past three years, six council leaders from across the region have been holding meetings in secret, with no record of when they took place or what was discussed, yet at the same time each authority paid out £60,000 to take part – equal to £1.26million.

Details of the payments made towards the partnership, known as the Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA), emerged during a full council meeting in Southend.

Southend’s Conservative Group said the fact Southend council leader Ian Gilbert was unable to answers questions about how the money was spent showed “contempt” for taxpayers.

Tony Cox, leader of the group, said: “There is no plan, there are no minutes of meetings and there is no answer to the question to how this money was spent beyond some sandwiches for the leader of the council.

“Now either these sandwiches are laced with gold or the leader of the council is unable to answer the question because he honestly doesn’t know because such information has been kept a secret even from him.

“The group seems to be more about creating jobs for the top brass in the south Essex councils to top up pensions than it is to improve the south Essex area.”

However, Southend’s Independent deputy leader Ron Woodley hit back, pointing out it was their own party which initially signed the agreement with the group and a Conservative budget, passed in February 2018, which approved the payments.

He said: “The first £120,000 that was given to ASELA was under Conservative control. Conservative councillor John Lamb was who signed the agreement and the first two payments were made under the Tories.

“The last payment would have been under this administration but of course all of them had been agreed by Mr Lamb at the beginning so we were committed to it.

But also you need to look at what we got from this.

“Through partnership working over the last three years and having the support of councils we have got nearly £65million for capital projects alone, including £23million for the Airport Business Park, £12.4million for the A127 and £15million for the Queensway project so it is a good return.”

The group of authorities, which is comprised of council leaders from Essex County Council, Southend, Thurrock, Rochford, Basildon, Brentwood and Castle Point, has come under close scrutiny in recent weeks after revealing a plan to create a new combined authority. The plan was created without the consultation of MPs or councillors.