Councillor defends much criticised financial policy and claims a huge success in green energy market. He then outlines cutbacks...

By Neil Speight

8th Jul 2021 | Local News

Cllr Shane Hebb addressing the meeting of cabinet.
Cllr Shane Hebb addressing the meeting of cabinet.

IN a clear rebuttal to the council's many critics, Cllr Shane Hebb - Thurrock Council's finance portfolio holder - delivered a valedictory statement about the authority's controversial 'borrow to invest' policy at the monthly cabinet meeting on Wednesday, 7 July and expounded its 'green credentials'.

At one point the authority built up a debt mountain of more than £1.4 billion and attracted nationwide publicity, almost all of it negative.

And, in apparent contradiction to the flag-waving by Cllr Hebb and colleagues at the cabinet meeting, when push comes to shove the council is determined to keep details of its 'successful' scheme a tight secret.

So much so it is currently fighting a legal battle to avoid having to disclose who has has lent money to - and who (and and at what cost) it has borrowed cash.

The council's financial associates have been damned by a judge and there has been widespread condemnation of the council's financial probity since Nub News first broke the story of its borrowing strategy in January 2020.

Nevertheless Cllr Hebb is standing tall and backing the council's strategy and is proud of its achievements in supporting the green economy.

Members at Wednesday's meeting were told Thurrock Council's investment in solar energy generates produces enough renewable energy to power 178,000 homes and prevent the release of 222,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

Cllr Hebb said: "The investment strategy has been a success on all fronts.

"It has raised more than £100million to allow us to fund services we know residents want, earned £13.5million for other public bodies, and the solar part of the portfolio generates enough green electricity to power every home in the borough twice over while making a carbon saving equivalent to taking 71,000 cars off the road for a year.

"The approach withstood a once-in-a-century pandemic and our reserves have been increased by 300% as a result of the approach. It also helped to reduce the economic shock of the last 15 months."

Council critics may dispute Cllr Hebb's evaluation of the council's position as it has just announced it plans to make 500 job cuts, is making significant cuts to public services - particularly in the care sector where it is closing day centres among cash-saving measures - and has to plug a gap of at least £34 million in its projected finances.

And it may also have to find millions to plug funding shortfalls in major infrastructure projects that have been botched, including the much delayed Stanford rail station rebuild and the hugely delayed and overspent A13 widening project.

Cabinet member for health and air quality, Cllr Allen Mayes, has joined in the self-congratulation and said: "Cleaner air plays an important role in the health of the nation. To know that our investments have not only helped fund services for local people but have also helped create renewable energy assets that are providing clean energy and preventing harmful emissions shows the remarkable additional benefits of this strategy."

Following his address praising the council's green strategy, Cllr Hebb then laid bare the impact of the council's cash-strapped situation, which sees it still almost £4 million short of the cash it needs to run the authority.

Cllr Hebb said: "We need to build a renewed council that is results-focused, outcomes orientated, and prioritised on the needs of the vulnerable and wider population. This plan takes a £34.3m gap, down to a £3.7m gap – with more work to do.

"The savings we need to make are significant but we are not in the same dire position that many councils have found themselves in thanks to our prudential financial management and highly successful investment strategy which has raised more than £100 million for the council since 2016 and continues to bring in profits even now.

"Ongoing pressures associated with COVID, and new rules are coming which prevent councils investing to earn to pay for services; services above what is mandated from a council. Other councils' investments have run a deficit, which galvanises the view nationally that rule changes are needed. This means no more seven or eight-digit income to fund extra services.

"We can make significant savings by selling buildings which are no longer fit for purpose or require significant maintenance and repair to run without costing the Thurrock taxpayer money, and running services more effectively from fewer, but better equipped buildings.

"There are no easy decisions here. We will undoubtedly become a smaller council and will focus on what is essential rather than what is desired.

"We will look at all aspects of how services are delivered, including staffing considerations and working practices. The protection of front line services, as always, will be our priority and efficiencies will be expected across the whole organisation.

"Everything we do will be done to avoid the vulnerable going without care, and to build back after this pandemic in a way that is sustainable for the future."

     

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