Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Labour leader John Kent delivers detailed condemnation of Conservative administration’s that has bankrupted Thurrock Council

THURROCK Council’s opposition leader Cllr John Kent delivered a detailed and critical analysis of the ruling Conservative administration’s road to ruin at last night’s {Monday, 9 January) meeting of the the authority.

At an extraordinary meeting called to ackowledge the council cannot balance its books and has a huge debt, Cllr Kent spoke about how the situation had arisen and he condemned the Conservatives lack of contrition and arrogance.

Cllr Kent’s full address to the meeting was:

“This meeting shames Thurrock. The stain of failure will remain with Thurrock Council for evermore.

“This evening we see, laid bare, the cost of six and a half years of Conservative leadership of the council. The council is bankrupt, The greatest financial crash of any British council – ever,

“The toxic Tory debt stands at very nearly one and a half billion pounds, the losses on their dodgy investments stand at £275 million, there is a funding gap of £469 million in this year’s budget, the shortfall for next year’s budget stands at £184 million, there is no prospect of setting a balanced budget for, at least, the next five years, the accounts for the past two years are yet to be signed off, and this evening we will accept the Section 114 notice and go, cap in hand, to government to beg for a bail out.

“That’s the record of Conservative failure since 2016.

“One of the problems when trying to explain this catastrophe is that some of the figures are so large that it’s difficult to comprehend.

“For example, when the Conservatives first formed the administration on 25th of May 2016, borrowing stood at £344 million.

“By the 2nd of September 2022 – the date of government intervention – that had risen to £1,466,342 million

“That’s an increase of £1,122,323,000 – or to put it another way, £490,000 added to the toxic Tory debt every single day since they formed the administration on 25th May 2016.

“And, try as they do to pretend they are a new broom, Cllr Mark Coxshall and his deputy have sat in cabinet for every single day of that time.

“And throughout that time, we have seen a wall of secrecy.

“We have been refused the right to ask questions, we have been falsely reassured and fobbed off while they have spent £70,000 fighting through the courts to try and refuse to answer Freedom of Information requests.

“We tried to warn of the impending disaster and forced an extraordinary council meeting back in July 2020 to put on record our very real concerns.

“Rather than even consider that we may have had a point the Conservatives did nothing but ridicule and try to belittle us for having the temerity to question them and raise out concerns.

“We were told we were “sanctimonious and disingenuous,” we were “a complete embarrassment” and “a disgrace.”

“Cllr Coxshall, however, told us that he “really enjoyed” the meeting saying that he “loved sitting here. I couldn’t chuckle to myself enough.”

“It’s safe to say he won’t be finding this evening’s meeting as enjoyable.

“The paper we have before us this evening sets out the five levers we have to try and recover from the catastrophe.

“I want to look at each of those and explore what they might mean to us and, more importantly, to residents.

“The first is Council Tax.

“We are being asked this evening to agree to raise Council Tax by more that the 5% referendum limit without holding that local referendum.

“I want to be very clear, the Labour Group will not be supporting that recommendation.

“The residents of Thurrock were not responsible for this disaster, they will already be paying more for less and we have a responsibility to do what we can to protect residents, especially in this cost of living crisis.

Last night’s meeting.
“The cap was put in place for good reason – as a safeguard against an out of control council implementing punishing Council Tax increases on its residents.

“Frankly, one of the reasons we have ended in this mess is the administration has sought to get around safeguards and ignore good governance. Further ignoring safeguards shouldn’t play a part in our recovery.

“I am also uncomfortable that this lever is Council Tax and not tax.

“Here in Thurrock we get to retain around 31% of any new Business Rates that are levied. We need to be making the case to government that we keep more of the Business Rates generated here to help our recovery.

“Asset Disposal.

“We are told that the sale of £92 million of assets was agreed back in July last year with a further £65 million identified but not yet made public.

“Those assets agreed for sale back in July included 19 village or community halls and ten scout halls.

“At the time, we were assured the council would look to transfer these scout and village halls to the organisations that currently use and run them. I am looking for an assurance this is still the case.

“It includes Children’s Centres in Aveley, Purfleet and Stanford. Again, can we have an assurance around the future provision of these services?

“There were seven pubs and various parcels of land on the list and I would seek assurances that the council will work with the leaseholders of those pubs to ensure they can continue to run their businesses?

“We don’t yet know what might be on the list for the next £65 million but have real concerns what might be on there – for instance we know that there are real question marks over the future of The Thameside and Grangewaters to name just two.

“We need to have total transparency over asset sales and avoid a fire sale that will see assets sold for less than their full value.

“Revenue Savings.

“There will be two new bodies to oversee spending – an Expenditure Control Panel and a Strategic Approval Panel.

“Between them these panels will meet five times a week to look at all new spending whilst any new spend of £500 will have to be signed off by the relevant service director.

“There will need to be revenue savings of £16 million for next year then, a minimum of 5% savings every year thereafter for the foreseeable future. On the current budget that is further cuts of £7.7 million each year.

“Paragraph 5.11 in appendix 2 tells us that the proportion of council funding spent on Adult and Children’s Social Care placements will increase from 28.6% of the budget to 52.4%.

“To put that the other way around, the proportion of funding available for everything that isn’t Social Care placements will fall from 71.4% to 47.6% – that is, effectively, a cut of a third to every other service the council provides.

“Alongside this, there is an ongoing review of all capital projects.

“This will impact projects large and small with major projects such as Stanford Station, the Grays underpass and the council elements of Purfleet regeneration under real threat as well as limited scope for delivering smaller projects such as road safety improvements or evnplay equipment in our parks and open spaces.

“Growth.

“The two paragraphs on growth really don’t set out a compelling case for how growth will make a major contribution to our recovery – so I look forward to seeing more work done on this in the coming months.

“It is important, however that we bear in mind the link between growth and asset disposals and ensure we don’t give up strategically important parcels of land and other assets too cheaply.

“Exceptional support from Government.

“We are told that initial help from Government will be in the form of a Capitalisation Direction.

“We need to understand that a Capitalisation Direction is, in effect, additional borrowing to close the deficit each year.

“Any new borrowing will come from The Government’s Public Works Loans Board. In other places these loans have come with a 1% premium.

“We must push Government to agree a discount on those loans rather than a premium but, its absolutely clear that we can’t borrow our way out of this crisis.

“Borrowing to close the gap and set a balanced budget will act as a sticking plaster until 2028/2029 but after that the council will be in a downward debt spiral with nothing left to sell and nowhere to left go.

“It is that bleak.

“The real question is whether Government will allow Thurrock to continue to exist as we know it today.

“When the Best Value Inspection reports, next month, we will get a detailed view as to just how this catastrophe has been allowed to happen and may identify some of those responsible.

“But, before we get there it is already clear that there has been a complete failure of leadership – political and managerial – that has led to the total collapse of the council’s finances and threatens the very existence of the authority.”

The full meeting can be viewed via this link.

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