THE county council is launching its own PR agency to offer services to other councils and private companies.

Following on from opening a bank and running post offices, Essex County Council has set up Essex Communications to offer PR services.

Eleven staff are being recruited, with job adverts on the council’s website for account managers and account executives up to £42,000 a year.

Giles Roca, the authority’s head of communications who is running the agency, said it has already secured its first client in independent think-tank the Local Government Information Unit.

He said: “We are looking to create a business within the council that is not dependant on the taxpayer.

“This is another example of how Essex is leading the way. This is a fantastic council that has the balls to challenge stereotypes about what a local authority should and shouldn’t do.”

Concerns have been raised at the creation of a business backed with public money.

Mr Roca added: “No business can go from zero to turning a profit straight away, and we see the county council’s funding as like an overdraft, which we hope to have paid off within three years and then start bringing money in.”

Tom Smith-Hughes, leader of the authority’s Lib Dem group, said the council needed to become a four-star performing authority before embarking on other ventures.

Mr Smith-Hughes said: “Until they have the maximum four stars and are improving strongly I think they should focus on providing the basic services at a better quality to residents.

“We have had to complain about misleading and innaccurate advertising coming out of County Hall. I think they need to sort out their own PR before looking to do it for others.”

Essex MPs have given a mixed response. John Baron, Tory MP for Billericay, said: “Essex is a very enterprising council, so this is not something I would dismiss out of hand.

“When the Government has been closing down post offices, it has been the county council which stepped in to re-open them. It is trying to help people and the Essex Bank plans are another example. Before we get too cynical about things, let us see whether this idea is successful and if it will help people.”

But Angela Smith, Labour MP for Basildon, said: “Frankly, I do not consider Essex County Council has the expertise to do this sort of thing.

“It should be concentrating on the day-to-day running of its services rather than public relations. To my mind, this is spin at its worst.”

Labour group leader Paul Kirkman said he has asked the council’s lawyers to investigate the legality of the scheme.

He said: “I’ve got no idea what could be next – perhaps a rocket ship to the moon.

“We’re losing the focus on core services like potholes and looking after vulnerable children.”