Posted: 17.12.20 at 21:37 by The Editor
OPPOSITION councillors snubbed Thurrock Council's plans to appoint a new director for its wholly-owned subsidiary development Thurrock Regeneration Limited (TRL) this evening (Thursday, 17 December) during a contentious meeting of the authority’s general services committee.
There was some strong rhetoric at the meeting, including Cllr Gary Byrne saying council officers “haven’t got a clue - this is Mickey Mouse.” He then added that that situation was “laughable and embarrassing” and said that any legal costs or fines incurred because the company and its subsidiary did not have directors should be met out of the officers’ pockets – not council taxpayers’!
A paper was put before the committee by regeneration portfolio holder Cllr Mark Coxshall to appoint a new director to the company to replace three council officers who resigned in August because of a 'conflict of interest' and - judging by the response of him and council leader Rob Gledill when two Labour members and two independents voted against the plan - the resistance was unexpected.
It really shouldn’t have been as, on Sunday, Thurrock Nub News ran a story forecasting what might happen as councillors rebelled against the constant veneer of secrecy the council and ruling Conservative group lay over its affairs.
The move to appoint to appoint the council's Corporate Director of Adults, Housing and Health, Roger Harris, as the sole director of the two regeneration companies had been described by opposition councillors as the authority ‘holding a gun to their heads’.
But despite that warning, the Tory administration went ahead with its plan – only to be shot down.
It is not now clear what will happen – even through Cllr Coxshall suggested the alternative would be to close the two companies down! However, it is stressed there is likely to be no effect on any tenants in council properties owned by Thurrock Regeneration Homes Ltd, which are mostly on the estate that replaced St Chad’s school in Tilbury.
Cllr Coxshall put his plan to members of the committee by saying: “This a technical item and I would suggest, as this is a non-period for TRL and I would suggest we can then bring a paper back to this committee before March. This is a stayed position for a short term. We just need to keep this ticking over until the plan for TRL it gets some more meat on it.”
First up after Cllr Coxshall had proposed the item was Labour leader Cllr John Kent who appeared perplexed about why the matter had been left to the eleventh hour (the council has to submit accounts to Companies House by 31 December and needs a director in place to do that).
And he was particularly interested about the subsidiary company, Thurrock Regeneration Homes Ltd, and asked what was its purpose?
Cllr Coxshall said: “Any company always sets up a separate company as delivery arm to protect the shareholders of the time.” And he turned to the council’s director of place, Andy Millard, for a more detailed explanation, only to be told by him: “I don't know why we launched the company.”
Anna Eastgate, one of the three directors to quit in August, and currently the council’s assistant director of Lower Thames Crossing & transport infrastructure projects, was able to help her boss out by saying: “Essentially Thurrock Homes is separate and holds the properties that the council has retained, mostly at St Chads. The maintenance of them is a purpose of the company.”
Cllr Kent pressed the point of what the ‘conflict was’ – and which director it applied to. Ms Eastgate said it was her and that she was involved in giving Thurrock Regeneration the land and then selling it. She said: “When I first joined the council my remit extended to being a place deliverer and that was a direct conflict with the housing delivery team” – though an observer of the meeting might have asked what that had to do with the Thames Crossing and transport infrastructures? Clearly a view shared by some councillors at the meeting who were unimpressed by her admission.
Mr Millard did chip in by saying: “It is difficult to speak on behalf of the directors. Wearing two hats was the primary reason for their resignation.”
Cllr Coxshall also tried to tip the balance of the argument, saying: “If it's an arm’s length organisation, it needs arm’s length directors. We want to see a new sea change in TRL if we need to keep it going.”
Cllr Kent remained unmoved and then questioned why there had been such secrecy about the resignations and added: “Three directors resigned on 31st of August, can I ask why shareholders - this committee - were not told?”
Cllr Coxshall, despite the fact that there have been several meetings of the general services committee since 31 August, said: “We weren't sitting. I think we reported it at full council. I thought that would have been sufficient.” Then he appeared to contradict his own argument by saying: “As shareholders we need to take a more active interest in this company.”
As ever in his oratory at council, Cllr Byrne was direct and to the point, saying: “If the deputy director of housing would have a conflict, why would the actual director of housing not have a conflict? And what happens if he gets hit by a number nine bus tomorrow and we have no director.”
Again Cllr Coxshall felt pressed enough to defend his position and said: “Roger Harris is leaving the administration but he has experience of looking after housing. It is a very easy appointment to make. As we move forward we will need more directors and then we will need to go out to market to look for new directors. We can make this a good vehicle for the community.”
Cllr Gledhill also interjected with: "He leaves in February. It is not considered Mr Harris will have the same conflict of interest.”
The other independent councillor on the committee, Cllr Fraser Massey, asked what alternatives there were to Mr Harris and wanted to know if they had been considered.
It appears there were none. Cllr Coxshall said: “I thought Roger was a very good choice, indeed a great choice. He knows the councillors on this committee and he would look after it. I was pleased he was willing to do this for us. I didn't look at anyone else.”
And Mr Millard added: “There were no other nominations that came forward. It was a narrow and short term appointment. Roger Harris was seen to be very sound.”
And ironically with a twist on what councillors had said before the meeting, Cllr Gledhill added: “No one put a gun to Roger Harris's head to do this. It shows the fantastic commitment of Roger to this council.”
Cllr Byrne wasn’t impressed, saying: “Is it not irresponsible putting one sole guy in charge of a business of this size. A one man band don't sit easy with me.”
When it came to a vote, Cllrs Byrne, Massey, Kent and Labour’s Cllr Bukky Okunade vetoed the appointment of Mr Harris and also naming Mr Millard as their proxy representative at a shareholder’s meeting prior to drawing up accounts. Cllrs Gledhill, Coxshall and Shane Hebb voted for the proposal and there were some caustic comments from Cllrs Gledhill and Coxshall in the flurry of exchanges that followed the voting.
Cllr Gledhill turned to the council’s legal officer Ian Hunt for advice about what would happen next and was told: “In essence we now have said the company won’t have a director for the forthcoming period, we need to look and see what mitigation we have and what we do.”
Ms Eastgate offered some comforting advice by saying: “Is there a risk to the residents, I can't imagine it will do so. It's not created an issue so far, so I can't see it creating any future issue.”
Cllr Coxshall, who was clearly very cross, said: “Can we look at closing the company and what the consequence of that will be on the tenants? What are the consequence to the people voting against tonight for the fines we might incur?”
He was advised: “In terms of the implications of closing down the company, that is an option we can look at. In terms of impact on councillors, there aren't specific implications in a financial sense, the power of surcharge was removed a few years ago.”
That prompted Cllr Byrne to say: “Any cock up is due to the irresponsibility of council officers. Councillors should not pay. This is laughable and embarrassing.”
Cllr Kent was more reserved saying: “This is the inevitable consequence of members not being treated with the respect they are due. I have been asking questions since September about this and I have received no responses. This is not good enough.”
That prompted Cllr Coxshall to criticise his rivals, telling Cllr Kent: “You have voted against this as a tantrum” and he challenged Cllr Massey to resign his seat and stand as a director.
Cllr Byrne wasn’t going to miss out in the verbal exchanges and threw in: “Our officers haven’t got a clue - this is Mickey Mouse.”
Closing the meeting in a state of pique, Cllr Gledhill said: “I disagree with you. I am very disappointed but this is something I am getting more and more used to. It shouldn't be happening.”
The meeting can be viewed in full via this link.