Barry the Banker leaves Labour in rancour
Date posted: 25-06-2012
THURROCK Council chamber was the setting for a clash over cash last week, when the authorities Labour leader, Cllr John Kent came under Tory fire.
The verbal fireworks were sparked by Cllr Kent’s report on the Councils strategy and finances, when he ran into flak from newly returned Conservative front bencher Barry Johnson, who at one point, under heckling from Labour members called on councillors to Calm down, calm, down children, listen to the teacher!
Cllr Johnson, the Tories finance spokesperson and a former portfolio holder of finance when his group were in power, was speaking for the first time after winning back a seat on the Council in Mays election.
The former city banker who numbers USB, Nat West and Credit Suisse among the companies he has worked for, took Cllr Kent to task after the leader had spoken of his pride in his groups achievements over the past two years since taking over.
He had told to chamber: For the second year we have brought the Council in under budget and we have raised the reserves from the £2m we inherited from the Conseravtive administration to £8m.
However, the next three years will be tough and there will be hard choices to make. We will need to look imaginatively and creatively at the finances.
Conservative leader Phil Anderson was the first to respond, criticising Cllr Kent over the Councils asset management policy, referring to past debates over the alleged plan to sell Council property including libraries, accusing him of a mass of backtracking and a lack of detail, concluding by saying: No details are available. People are not interested in strategy, they are interested in what is going to happen and the bricks and mortar of our communities.
Cllr Kent responded by accusing Cllr Anderson and the Tories of scaremongering but added it was a fruitless policy that didnt work before the election and it wont work now.|
Cllr Johnson then took to the floor and launched a broadside at Cllr Kent, claiming he and the Tories were the architects of the Councils improved financial standing.
He said: Thank you for presenting this report to the chamber, and congratulations in building up the Councils reserves, but I will come back to that later.
The problem with any finance report is that it is only ever presented in the form of a history lesson and as such fails to provoke active debate. Therefore I have taken a look at past presentations of your finance reports both to this chamber and the media to see if we are learning from those history lessons.
Past presentations from your group appear to concentrate on how I almost bankrupted the Council whilst holding the position of portfolio holder for finance and, seeking to concentrate on replenishing the council reserves, whilst avoiding making any decisions that might involve a less than acceptable political headline.
So to continue on the theme of a history lesson, please allow me to explain the reason behind taking our reserves to its low of £2.1m as brought to the attention of the chamber in this report, which in your opinion almost declared this Council insolvent.
Just as an exercise here the description of insolvency or bankruptcy is that of an individual or organisation not being able to meet its financial commitments as and when they fall due. In the Councils case examples would include staff salaries, or precept charges, something that the section 151 officer at the time would have had to declare in his section 25 letter of acceptance of the budget if it were true or even likely.
However, the Council found itself in a position very similar to the one that it has recently found, something which I notice is not mentioned in your latest report, the fact that the auditors refused to sign off the accounts.
I met with the finance director of the time and together we removed any trace of smoke or mirrors on reporting of under or over spends in a directorate and insisted that each director and budget holder in addition to their statutory spend, gave us their wish list for spending, their worst case scenario, basically the facts. this resulted in the most open, transparent budget, which had clear political leadership and direction, ever put forward by Thurrock Council. However, it did mean that the reserves were utilised to ensure the execution of the budget, which after all is exactly why the reserves are there as per the dictionary definition, to keep back, as for future use or for a special purpose.
Here I must congratulate you on your u-turn in replenishing those reserves. I say u-turn as I ask you to cast your mind back to my question to you in this chamber shortly after you had taken the administration, requesting you continue to agree to the outgoing Conservative administrations promise of replenishing the reserves by a minimum of £1m each year, you may recall you refused to give that pledge.
Cllr Johnsons lengthy speak brought him into a clash with the Mayor, Cllr Yash Gupta, who asked him to wind up, which he did by saying: So when all this is considered I find my self asking why we havent taken on board all the history lessons of our past financial inadequacies and sought budgets that add value, and budgets that are cutting edge, and I am continuously drawn to the same conclusion that at this present time there is no political leadership no political leadership, Cllr Kent would you agree?
Cllr Kents reply was short and succinct, saying he didnt and after a further injection of criticism from Tory Rob Gledhill, who called on the Council spend some of the money it had saved on things like green street lighting, which would in turn save money long term, the leaders report was accepted by the Council.
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