By Local Democracy Reporter
THERE are calls for more transparency after it was agreed Thurrock Council’s debt could increase to more than £2billion in just three years.
The increase to the council’s debt means it will almost double over the three-year period, despite government figures showing that Thurrock already has the highest level of short term borrowing in the country.
The council’s latest finance reports show it has run up a debt of £1.32billion, with almost £1billion borrowed in just the past five years.
The decision to increase borrowing in order to invest means council debt will hit £2.15billion by the end of March 2023.
Labour Councillor Oliver Gerrish warned at a meeting on Wednesday night that councillors were “writing the biggest blank cheque in the history of Thurrock Council” but Conservative Councillor Shane Hebb said it is vital to deliver services for residents.
“Last year Thurrock Council received £31million worth of income from investments and in the coming year we are expecting about £33million,” said Mr Hebb.
“This approach funds our aspiration for our capital programme as well as some of the additional services, including £1million for police constables funded for our borough, half a million in the primary care and education sector around mental health, another half a million for improving air quality.
“Not to mention the several million that we’ve ploughed into the borough so we can empty bins on time, cut the grass and fill in the many potholes. In short it is all used for the benefit of residents.”
He further explained that the investments were in “safe renewable ventures” and the alternative was to cut services.
Of the current £1.32billion of debt for this year, £1.01billion is short term borrowing.
By comparison, Essex’s other unitary authority Southend Council reported no short term loans but were able to deliver a budget for 2020 without making cuts to services.
Council tax in Southend is due to go up by 3.99 per cent while in Thurrock it will rise by 3.49 per cent.
Thurrock’s Labour leader, Councillor Jane Pothercary, said: “I have some concerns about how high Thurrock’s debt has climbed without a huge amount of democratic oversight.
“I am concerned there is a lack of transparency about the debt the council is currently in.”
She said she would not support an increase in debt without a guarantee there will be more oversight, something Mr Hebb said he would consider.
Mr Gerrish added that more democratic oversight was vital as the level of debt was “staggering”.
The Labour councillors also hit back at Mr Hebb’s assurances there are no risks to residents, telling councillors “there is a risk wherever you make these kinds of investments, there is a risk of them going bad.”
But members of the Thurrock Independents backed the investments and Councillor Jack Duffin told the council it is something they “should be proud of”. He urged the Conservatives to continue.
With the Tories getting support from the independents, the increase was approved on Wednesday night.
According to Government figures, the authority with the second highest amount of short term borrowing is Lancashire with £622million followed by Plymouth with £377million.