THURROCK TAXPAYERS could face a million pound bill should Tory plans go ahead to privatise Grays Beach Park.
Two weeks ago, the Thurrock Conservative group pushed through a number of amendments to the ruling Labour groups budget including the possibility of handing over the running of Grays Beach Park, Thameside Theatre and other facilities to a private company.
However, earlier this week, Cory Environmental Trust, who have a 25 year lease to run the park, sent a solicitors letter to Thurrock Council’s Chief Executive Graham Farrant, informing him that they could ask for the millions back that they have pumped into the popular beauty spot.
In 1999 Cory signed a 25 year lease to regenerate the area. Since then they have ploughed over £5 million into the borough.
The trust are extremely angry at the proposal.
Secretary, Geoff Howell said: “There are specific clauses in the lease which state that should the park be disposed of then we can claim our financial investment back.
“Cory have invested in the park since 1999 for specific reasons. It is a haven for families. For families who cannot afford a holiday but know there is somewhere on their doorstep that has sand, swings, a cafe. It has brought a lot of joy to those families”.
Mr Howell confirmed that no-one from the Tory group had contacted him regarding the plans.
However, a leading Tory councillor has defended the decision.
Cllr Barry Johnson said: “Before these plans/proposals were put forward we met with the Chief Executive Graham Farrant and Director of Finance Martin Hone who, both agreed that the proposals were viable.
“The plan is to package up the leisure activities currently run by the Council and seek a professional company to offer the services on our behalf. This would be done in the form of a trust therefore ensuring that the council retained ownership, but offered a service that would be more beneficial to our residents.
“I do not believe that we are not putting council tax payers money at risk here, but I am afraid I cannot help thinking that this has come from our counterparts within the Labour group, still sore for not getting their budget agreed.”
Cllr Johnson admitted that they did not discuss the matter with Cory Environmental Trust beforehand.
Thurrock Council has confirmed that they did receive a letter from the Trust.
A spokesperson said: “The Chief Executive has received a letter from Cory Environmental Trust regarding the conditions placed on the original grant to develop Grays Beach and is looking into the original conditions and what options might be available to the council.
No decision has yet been taken regarding the future of Grays Beach, and no decision will be taken until members have had an opportunity to fully consider all of the implications of any decision that they might take.
The discussions between Tory leader Garry Hague and the two senior officers have, it appears, become a matter of deep embarrassment for the council. These discussions, we understand, took place, just hours before the vital council meeting.
The key question is whether Tory group leader Garry Hague made the officers aware of previous controversies involving Cory Environmental and Thurrock Council. Controversies that occurred while cllr Hague was part of the ruling cabinet.
In 2008 the Thurrock Gazette ran a front page splash with the headline: “We Want Our Money Back”. The article revealed that “The Trust…may seek a £1.3million refund because the children’s play facility has been allowed to become run down.
Councillor Hague has not responded to questions sent to him by YourThurrock but if he didn’t brief the senior officers fully on this issue then it may illustrate why the government watchdog the Audit Commission, highlighted a fundamental division between councillors and officers under the Tory administration.
Either way, YT understands that council officers have now been issued with strict instructions not to discuss budgetary or policy matters with councillors.
Council leader, John Kent (Lab) has told YT where the issue goes from here.
“The democratic will of the council has said that we need to investigate whether the proposal is viable. That is what we will do. Officers are spending a great deal of time researching the matter.
Cabinet meets in April to discuss the issue but a decision may not be made until July. Who is in power to make such a decision will of course be made on May 5th.”