Call for Thurrock Council to delay civic offices project as cost of Covid begins to bite

By Neil Speight

2nd Sep 2020 | Local News

The planned new extension.
The planned new extension.

A CALL has been made for a £10million expansion of Thurrock Council's offices to be put on hold after it was revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic has cost local council taxpayers millions of pounds.

In just the first quarter of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic cost the council £2.2 million and by the end of the year the total could be £15 million or higher.

The details have been revealed in a council report, which explains there is now a "freeze" on all non-essential projects and a review is taking place that will look at what "savings" can be made next year.

Labour councillor Martin Kerin, who represents the Grays ward, said the controversial plan to build an extension to the council's offices should be included in the freeze.

He also claimed the root of the problem could be down to financial mismanagement, as well as the pandemic.

He said: "Thurrock Council is currently billions in debt. It has massively overspent on the A13, had major delays on the Stanford-le-Hope rail project and plans to spend £10 million on plush new offices.

"Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they are freezing spending.

"They can blame Covid-19 but the rot set in a long time ago."

Reefering to already announced cuts in expenditure, Cllr kerin said: "It concerns me what this council counts as 'non-essential'. Do gates for our elderly complexes count? Does transport for our vulnerable children count?

"One thing's for sure – £10million on unwanted offices is one thing our residents would like to see frozen as 'non-essential'."

The civic offices extension on New Road, Grays, has been a topic of controversy for the council for more than two years. While the council claims that it will inspire the regeneration of the town, critics have labelled it a "vanity project" and warned it will have few benefits for residents.

Questions have also been raised about the council's financial strategy which left the authority in more than £1 billion in debt prior to the pandemic. This is because the chief finance officer has been taking out short term loans in order to invest into renewable energy projects.

Council bosses say the strategy has boosted the council's reserves and helped avoid cuts to services but the debt will still need to be paid off. It is not yet clear how the pandemic has impacted these investments but there has been speculation inside the council that significant unanticipated savings will have to be made because investment returns have dropped.

In total, the council's total funding gap is currently expected to be around £15 million for 2021 as a result of the pandemic and this has been caused by the cost of implementing Covid-19 services, a pause in the council's investment strategy and reduction in local fees and charges.

Further details are expected in October when a plan for how to make savings to address the gap will be made public.

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