Thurrock Council in ‘grave danger’ as leader promises openness and honesty
The newly elected leader of beleaguered Thurrock Council says the authority is in “grave danger” but has promised a “new era of openness, transparency and honesty”.
Mark Coxshall was elected at last week’s full council meeting, the first since the urgent government intervention in September which led to the resignation of his predecessor, Rob Gledhill.
During Gledhill’s tenure the Conservative council undertook a £1 billion investment policy with little to no democratic or public scrutiny.
Over the space of six years, deals involving hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money were made behind closed doors by the council’s chief financial officer, Sean Clark. Questions and concerns raised by opposition councillors and journalists were dismissed or ignored. Misleading and inaccurate statements were made to the public.
The council spent three years fighting FOI requests, submitted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, asking what the council invested in and where it got the money from.
Even a local Conservative MP, Stephen Metcalfe, has accused the council of giving him “inaccurate” assurances “that its finances were in order”.
The council’s investment policy has since imploded, with vast amounts of public money at stake and local people facing consequences that will last decades.
Coxshall was deputy leader during Gledhill’s administration. In his first speech as leader, he told the council chamber the authority was in “grave danger”.
“Let me be frank [about] what has happened here,” he said. “Years ago, all councillors approved the investment plan and we tried to avoid public service cuts. This worked at the time, with investments in the environment, roads, communities, health and much more.
“However, voices started to be raised in concern at the approach. Reassurances were given to those concerned and they appear wrong. Indeed, the policy framework set out by members appears not to have been adhered to.
“We attempted this investment plan. It has not worked. There is no hiding from it — we’re in great difficulty and I am sorry for this.”
Earlier this month deputy chief finance officer Jonathan Wilson revealed the council would be counting the cost of its financial crisis for more than 20 years.
While the full impact of the scandal is not yet known, the most immediate consequence is soaring interest costs from having to borrow £836m from a Treasury-run lending facility to repay the local authorities that helped finance Thurrock’s investments. Wilson also raised the prospect of a “significant write-off” of some of those deals.
Addressing councillors during Thursday’s meeting, Coxshall pledged to “put things right”.
“I can’t pretend it will be easy or quick. It won’t be. What I can say is I will do my best to make sure that, with your help, we can put things right.”
He added: “What I can tell you is that this will be a new era of openness, transparency and honesty.”
Coxshall said he would allow opposition councillors to ask questions during cabinet meetings and make himself available for briefings “at any time with the media”. In addition he would reform the council’s scrutiny processes.
Commissioners Essex County Council are undertaking an inspection to determine what went wrong, with the findings to be submitted to the government on January 3 next year. Coxshall promised the report would be published and subject to debate in the council chamber.
He added: “This will be difficult and painful. It’s people’s jobs we are talking about, but I want to be open with you regarding what we need to do to protect our services for our constituents.
“I promise never to sugarcoat anything. In regard to the debt level, that work is ongoing at the moment. I will report back as soon as I can with irreversible facts. We had facts that were changing. That can’t happen now. When I say something, I really mean it.”
When opposition councillors asked questions about the crisis later in the meeting they were told answers could not be provided due to the ongoing investigation.
Gary Byrne, of Thurrock Independents, asked what due diligence had been done on Rockfire Capital and Liam Kavanagh “before we trusted them with the family silver”.
Labour leader John Kent questioned payments totaling £138m provided to Kavanagh’s companies — money that is currently unaccounted for.
Graham Snell, cabinet member for finance, replied: “There are a few elements to this whole scenario which are particularly sensitive and what we must be careful of in this chamber is saying anything that might in the future prejudice an action that may or may not be taken regarding a particular aspect of it. This is one of those.”
When pressed, Snell confirmed the payments had been made.
Kent also asked about a valuation undertaken by independent investment experts which found the solar farms the council helped Kavanagh to buy are worth as much as £200m less than needed for it to be repaid in full, as first revealed by the Bureau.
Snell said this was also subject to the ongoing investigation, adding: “I understand the opposition party wants answers right now. We don’t have answers right now. We will have the answers though.”