AT THE final cabinet meeting before the local elections, council leader John Kent took the opportunity to reflect on the performance of the Labour administration.
Cllr Kent said: “Cast your minds back 12 months when the Conservatives formed the administration and we put forward some changes to their budget — all of which went through and none of which put peoples jobs in jeopardy. They were sensible schemes and we’d even found outside funding to help the Tilbury Ferry!
Compare that to what we are having to discuss tonight. Our adult education service thrown into chaos and staff finding out their jobs are at risk from the media. Doing these things by text is bad enough, but by press release — yes some press had the Tories’ embargoed release before we had seen their proposals and even before our senior officers knew for certain what the proposals were.
We were looking to take a reasoned approach, working steadily towards making massive but sustainable savings, yet here we are tonight trying to sort out another ill-considered Conservative catastrophe.
Let’s not forget what we inherited not quite a year ago — a six million pound overspend, out of control service spending and rapidly disappearing reserves. If we had continued overspending at the rate of the Conservatives by September we would have been bust!
What I will say here and now is that we are determined that will not happen again. Reserves are growing. Service budgets are coming in on target, despite more mid-year enforced cuts from the government and we have a balanced overall budget.
Despite our inheritance and the pointless headline-grabbing Conservative additions at last council (which amount to less than of one per cent of the total, so much for an “alternative” budget), Thurrock Council is in a far more stable and secure place and that’s what this borough and our residents need.
So, let’s look at some of these new savings and spending.
Spending on PCSOs, until the police get back to us, we don’t know what that will mean — except we are going to have to spend hours of precious officer time in negotiations.
Finding 20-odd staff members who want to cut their hours and their pay by a fifth — would you want to do that with inflation as it is and consider the extra workload this will put on already hard-working officers?
Cutting the number of portfolios. What our opposition forgot to say was that before 2004 there were only eight cabinet members. It was they who upped it (and the cost) up to ten. In addition, this is not something the council can instruct the Leader to do. It’s in the Leader’s gift.
Efficiencies in TransVol and bus services … at a time when we’ve already had to reduce our bus subsidy by a quarter, we now have to look at deeper cuts to bus subsidies and cutting TransVol’s grant.
£2,000 for each ward member to spend in their area. This was planned (by a cross-party group) as a way of getting councillors more involved with their local communities, so that’s out the window now.
Cutting the IT budget. Computer infrastructure here has been under-invested in for many years, this would have brought our IT services right up to the cutting edge, and — I might say — brought bigger savings than they propose. That’s on hold now.
Apparently, we learn from the media, the Conservatives held detailed discussions with Impulse Leisure about packaging up leisure and community halls. Perhaps someone should find out exactly what those discussions were, when they were held and what was agreed?
Sharing the Monitoring Officer post with Barking and Dagenham. Not new, it had already been agreed.
And finally, adult education, the Thameside and Grays Beach. What can I say?
Outsource Grays Beach and the Thameside, putting peoples jobs at risk and causing uncertainty about the future of much loved, well used local facilities.
Close the adult education centre, sell the site and move its services to the new FE/HE campus. Sounds well and good … but where’s the campus? A quick glance across the road reveals it isn’t there. There isn’t even a planning application, let alone a building. There may be in due course – but until then the dozens of dedicated staff at the centre, the 1800 learners, the 86 children attending the pre school – and their parents, to say nothing of the many community groups based at the centre – groups such as the Thurrock Courts Players, Thurrock Disabled Art Society, the Thurrock Local History Society, Thurrock Art Society and more besides – are all concerned for their futures following a proposal made without warning and without, even, the courtesy of a discussion with those effected.
One last thought. Read the comments in the Budget update appendix very carefully. It really shows the professionalism of our officers here in Thurrock. They’ve had a fortnight to find these answers and they’ve found them and presented them in a very professional and impartial way. Any frustration they may have is very well hidden.
The officers and I constantly told the opposition: “If you’ve got some ideas let’s hear them; let’s investigate them; let’s see what is possible and when. But no. A chance for a unified council wasted. A chance for sensible consensual politics ignored. And all for a headline or two.”