Tory leader and the missing £21 million of 'debt' claim - "I'm sorry for any unintended confusion" says Rob Gledhill but there are no answers to renewed question

  Posted: 22.11.21 at 18:57 by The Editor

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THURROCK Council's Conservative leader has admitted to an embarrassing gaffe and apologised after getting his recollections of the borough's debt wrong.

Cllr Rob Gledhill had spoken up to defend the council's financial strategies in the wake of news that 500 jobs are to be cut from the council employment roster, including up to 250 people starting the new year by being made redundant!

News of the job cuts was confirmed last week and provoked much criticism of the council's financial management.

Among those at the forefront of criticism was Labour leader Cllr John Kent who ended his attack on the Conservatives' strategy by saying: "It is clear that Thurrock Conservatives have completely lost control of the council’s finances.”

In response Cllr Gledhill delivered his defence of the council and his party's performance in managing the council's financial affairs since taking over the authority in 2016. He has been a robust and consistent supporter of its 'borrow to invest strategy' implement in recent years.

During that time the council built up a debt mountain that at one point reached £1.4 billion. Now, as the authority plans it finances for the next two years, it has to overcome a potential deficit of £34 million in funding.

At a full council meeting in 2016 Cllr Gledhill applauded plans to build a new theatre in Thurrock and keep the Thameside Theatre open until it was built. Now he wants to close it as a key cash saving.

That has provoked a welter of cuts to services, a fire sale of assets and the job losses announced last week. The council has been described as flat broke and 'staring into a financial black hole' by a union spokesperson concerned about the pending loss of jobs and cuts to services.

The UNISON union has called on the Conservative government to bail out local authorities that are struggling to cope.

However, Cllr Gledhill intimates the root of the problem in Thurrock lies with his political predecessors and that his party have managed the books better than Labour did, issuing a statement that said when his party took control in May 206 they inherited a £40 million funding deficit.

He said: "I am sure that no one, other than the Labour leader, forgets we inherited a deficit of £40m from Labour when we took control of the council in 2016.”

However, Thurrock Nub News' scrutiny of the council's budget planning in February 2016 under Labour's administration shows that the council was facing a deficit of £18.4 million spread over the following three years - not £40 million as quoted by Cllr Gledhill. That figure was rubber-stamped by a full council meeting on Wednesday, 24 February, which Cllr Gledhill attended and he gave a detailed speech about the new budget - applauding the council's finance team for their work, which he described as 'accountancy magic'.

By way of an aside, Cllr Gledhill also applauded and supported then leader Cllr Kent's declaration to keep the Thameside Theatre open, saying: "Not shutting the Thameside instantly and putting the plans forward for a brand new Thameside Theatre that’s on the side of the Thames is the right thing to do."

Two months later Cllr Geldhill found himself in control of the council and those plans for a new theatre. But closure of the Thameside Theatre, without any replacement, is now a lynchpin policy of the Conservatives' financial strategy and the theatre is set to shut in March. Since making his statement at the 2016 meeting 'applauding the idea' no theoretical or practical plans for a new theatre have come forward.

Nub News asked Cllr Gledhill to explain the £21.6 million difference between the reality shown in the council's 2016 adopted Medium Term Financial Forecast and Cllr Gledhill's recollection of the budget-setting meeting which he spoke in detail on.

He has acknowledged his statement was incorrect, but says only by £10 million which was due to a 'typing error' as he was in a rush to prepare his statement on a 'day full of meetings'. He has declined to respond to further questions about the remaining £11.6 million disparity but did say he would like to 'apologise for any unintended confusion'.

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