Sunday, January 29, 2023

Opinion: Thurrock Council: How on earth did it get to this?

FROM 2006 to 2018, this reporter attended nearly every Thurrock Council meeting.

For a true feel for what has been happening in Thurrock (re their finances) over the last three years, we must signpost you to the outstanding work of Gareth Davies. But perhaps more importantly, the work of Neil Speight at the Thurrock Independent and Thurrock Nub News.

Neil was the Cassandra, the dogged local news editor who has pursued, without fear of favour, since the very beginning.

But this piece is a little window into the first few years of the Tory administration.

When the Tories took over from Labour in 2016, there was a distinct contempt for the previous Labour administration. Labour under John Kent always had the borough’s finances at the heart of the concerns.

They would point to the austerity agenda under PM David Cameron and consequences for local government. It was, as they say, Realpolitik.

It was encapsulated by their Graph of Doom. The Graph of Doom showed the decline in government grants. This, as they said, was this.

From May 2016, there was a dismissive and arrogant air amongst the Tories. You may witness it at the meetings filmed by us.

They had a different approach.

It was a philosophy shared by the chief executive of Thurrock Council, Lyn Carpenter. In one of our interviews with Lyn, she told us that instead of sitting there bemoaning the cuts to the council budget, they should look to what they could do with the money they had. Just like the parable of the talents.

So it looked like a perfect marriage.

However, somewhere along the line, you weren’t convinced the Tories knew or understood what they were doing.

Anyone who followed the political “career” of cllr Shane Hebb found it very hard to follow what he was saying. Not because it was high level economic philosophy but because it felt like word soup.

You did start to wonder if he understood any of this?

But as the months went on, his colleagues started to call him “the iron chancellor” and you got the feeling that they believed it and he believed it.

But when you take on positions like this, you better know your stuff. In the outside world you may be a guy in a factory but in the wacky world of local democracy and by dint of a few hundred people voting for you, you are now overseeing a multi million pound budget. Nobody put a gun to your head so you better understand all this to a very high level because if you don’t, you could end up in a nightmare scenario as in the end befell Thurrock Council.

So when the finance director brought forward proposals for the member (s) to decide, who truly understood them?

Or was their the cultural/political/intellectual appetite to understand them?

Was there any member of the Tory cabinet with the will to examine, assess or challenge any of these proposals?

Perhaps they allowed themselves to be overshadowed by their chief executive, Lyn Carpenter.

A council leader was once at an Essex wide event. They reflected that it appeared that every council leader was there with their chief executive apart from Thurrock, where it looked like the chief executive was there with her leader of the council.

The fact that the then council leader Rob Gledhill hardly appears on here may bring to question his leadership in relation to the whole affair. Good at grass cutting and standing next to police officers but appeared to be out of his depth when it came to what has unravelled.

In conclusion, we wonder, if the foundations was set by the culture of two organisations? The work and management culture of the fourth floor at Thurrock Council and the political, economic and social culture among the ruling Thurrock Conservative group.

Put that together and you may have the perfect storm.

That is in no way a matter of comfort or compensation for the Thurrock resident who could have the mother of all council tax bills coming through their doors in April.

This is simply a small reflective piece, looking back at the years 2016 to 2018. It simply wonders if the roots of the problem can be traced to what we have referred to?

The bottom line is that the films above, from 2018, chronicles the Tories referring themselves as an example to other councils. In 2022, you certainly are that but perhaps not in the way you thought.

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