Posted: 14.01.21 at 21:11 by The Editor
THURROCK’S ruling Conservative group chose to gloss over national-headline making losses and alleged dodgy deals as they approved a new financial strategy for the coming year.
At this week’s meeting of the council’s cabinet, finance portfolio holder Cllr Shane Hebb delivered an outline plan which will see the council reduce its approved borrowing levels over three years by more than £350 million.
It is an about-face from the borrowing strategy championed for the last two years by Cllr Hebb and his colleagues and comes in the wake of a high profile court case which saw the council concede it had paid five million pounds in commission to a controversial broker and news that broke last month that the council could lose up to £20 million on a botched bonds deal.
Presenting his budget for next year Cllr Hebb made no mention of those but instead summed up recent events bay saying: “The reduction in borrowing reflects the pause to the council’s investment approach, something which was anticipated to happen over time, but will now happen quicker.”
He was praised for his speech by fellow cabinet member Cllr Cllr Barry Johnson who said: “My mind went back to the years of Labour when quite frankly financial reports were just full of smoke and mirrors.
"I have listened to a report here tonight that was precise, easy to understand and full of trustworthiness and truth. I have to say I am very proud of what we have achieved.”
Cllr James Halden damned the 'crocodile tears of the Labour opposition' adding: "Especially in relation to the council tax increase. In Labour's last budget they whacked everything up to the maximum. The idea that Labour carp from the sidelines really is pretty disgusting.
“The opposition should get behind us and abandon their approach of headlines at any cost and complaining about the service.”
Cllr Halden was upbeat about the proposed budget and especially the impact it would have on staff moral and pay in social services saying the Conservatives were investing in it with a view to ensuring people wanted to work for Thurrock.
“I hope the opposition act in a less churlish manner and support this budget,” he concluded.
Council leader Cllr Rob Gledhill backed up the comments, and he too brushed over the possible losses and controversy over the council’s borrow to invest strategy which has seen the council rack up more than £1 billion in loans. Instead he concentrated on return from investments, saying: “If it had not been for this administration we would be in much worse straits. We are getting fantastic returns on our investment, 30 million pounds so far.
He blamed the council's critics and the 'headline-grabbing' opposition for making people jittery about working with Thurrock. Now we are having to cut back because of those who are jittery because of those headlines.”
In a statement after the meeting the council said the new levels of borrowing would still provide the ability to fund infrastructure projects “critical to the local and national recovery which will benefit Thurrock’s residents and businesses.”
Cllr Hebb was quoted as saying: “We always said that the approach around investments was not long-term or permanent, and services needed reform, some of which has been happening already.
“The investment approach has earned nearly £80m since its agreement by all councillors back in 2017 and allowed Thurrock to reform services at a more measured pace, something we would not have had the ability to do had we not had access to the significant surpluses the investment approach generated.
“The strategy has led to spending on services not usually expected of a council and allowed services to operate with more non-statutory functions for the benefit of Thurrock’s communities with additional police officers, mental health support in schools and a cleaner environment as examples of this.
“The investment strategy has been successful and has played a significant role in allowing the council to increase its reserves to treble the amount compared to 2016.
“It means we have breathing space to make more considered, sustainable decisions for the long term instead of being forced to act in haste, following the events of 2020, where continued use of the investment approach has had to be reduced.”
The Conservatives will ask the council to approve a council tax increase of 4.99 per cent when it holds its budget-setting meeting. Three per cent of that is committed to adult social services.