'Don't use a first class stamp without asking a boss - and, by the way, would you like to give up your job?' The reality of life on the front line for Thurrock Council's ordinary staff attempting to do their vital jobs as austerity begins to bite

By Neil Speight

26th Nov 2022 | Local News

THURROCK Council staff have been ordered not to send out any post with a first-class stamp on it unless they ask permission from a senior manager.

The all-departments message was issued to staff yesterday (Friday, 25 November) as the council seeks to save the pennies while a billion and a half pounds debt mountain creeps up.

Other internal cost-cutting measures are to be implented and a call has gone out for people who might wish to take voluntary redundancy.

It comes in advance of expected full details of how the council may suffer an operating loss of around £490 million in the current financial year ending in March.

Those figures are set to be in a document put before the authority's cabinet on Wednesday, 7 December but they may come to light before that at next week's meeting of the council.

There is no formal agenda item at full council about the authority's parlous financial state in the wake of its catastrophic 'borrow to invest' programme which has brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. And sparked government investigation and a detailed probe into its financial probity.

At the forefront of the firing line. Cllr Mark Coxshall has the huge task of holding a crumbling council together.

However, council leader Cllr Mark Coxshall will face a barrage of questions, led by Labour opposition leader Cllr John Kent.

In one he says: "The scale of the financial catastrophe facing Thurrock Council is now becoming clear. What are the next steps the leader will take in trying to save the council?

Thurrock Nub News understands councillors may be briefed on the dire situation in advance of the council meeting - but some details have already leaked out.

In addition to having already reached an agreement to borrow around £680 million from the government to pay back councils and public organisations it borrowed from, it may need to go back cap in hand for additional hundreds of millions just to keep the council solvent and operational.

The borrowing packages the council has, or hopes to enter into, are set to have an impact over at least the next four decades! The council has plundered its reserves and the debt is likely to have to be paid back year-on-year by generations of council taxpayers.

The impact is already beginning to be felt within the council offices. Aside from the stamp ban and other cuts, staff who face the very real prospect of losing their jobs - indeed anyone wanting voluntary redundancy have been asked to step forward - are being asked if they have any more money-saving ideas.

The council had previously stated it needs to shed hundreds of jobs to try and meet its original budget over the next two years. That was before the cost-of-living crisis began to unfold and the cataclysmic repercussions of its failed investment project began to emerge.

The stark and brutal truth makes a mockery of statements from top Tories in recent times. They rubbished concerns that the council might implode financially and ridiculed their critics.

Cllr Luke Spillman pictured alongside suspended CEO Lyn Carpnter. She has been removed from office pending investigation into her role into the financial debacle. However Cllr Spillman keeps his profile up with a succession of jokes on social media!

For example, as the truth began to unravel, cabinet member Cllr Luke Spillman took to social media to berate the media, including Thurrock Nub News, whose investigations were starting to expose the problems.

He said: "Don't read title tattle. Ignore sensationalist claptrap. Read the actual numbers. So far we are £90 million in profit. This fact is indispensable" (SIC: We think he meant indisputable).

However, the Conservatives' young 'brat pack' that lapped around the feet of then, but now displaced and disgraced, leader Cllr Rob Gledhill are now keeping their mouths shut and a low profile - at least on the topic of finance. Cllr Spillman is noted for popping up on social media with a succession of jokes to lighten the mood in the austerity-struck borough.

Among the 'silent' Tory hierarchy is Cllr Jack Duffin, the finance portfolio holder who often trumpeted triumphantly about the borrow and investment policy and slamed its critics. It's all a far cry from his younger days as a UKIP idealist who said he was inspired by a 'straight-talking, no nonsense, to-the-point party' which had grown in popularity because 'the rest of them , quite frankly, lied to generations'.

Cllr Duffin eventually abandoned the UKIP flag, helped launch the Independent Group and then defected to join the Tories where he was rewarded with an £11,000 a year cabinet post which he still holds while workers can't use a first class stamp.

Despite being the accountable portfolio holder when the council's investment dream collapsed, he has said nothing, nor apologised. That's a stark contrast to the number of times he stood up and attacked critics in the Labour party who were questioning the veracity of the project - and he damned the media for having the audacity to question Tory policies and his belief that borrowing was best!.

Another Tory young gun now biting his tongue when previously he used it to lash opponents is Cllr Duffin's predecessor as finance porfolio, Cllr Shane Hebb.

For a couple of years he rode the wave of triumphal optimism and refuted all criticism and questions.

As recently as last July he was still delivering valadictory pronouncements, telling the cabinet: "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.

Cllr Shane Hebb was championing the council's strategy as late as last July despite the growing concern.

"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."

It is not disputed that the investment did bring in short term cash injections approaching that £100 million mark. The problem comes in paying back the hundreds of millions borrowed to buy the bonds that brought the short term fix in. That is the subject of a 'Best Value Inspection' currently being mounted by the government into the council's affairs.

As the council's financial woes continue to unravel, Cllr Coxshall is trying to hold things together and says all mistakes will be exposed to the 'disinfectant of sunlight' and he is committed to finding sustainable solutions.

In his latest address he says: "As you will be aware, in September the Government announced Essex County Council (ECC) as Commissioner to support Thurrock Council with the financial challenges we face. Linked to this, ECC appointed a team to undertake a Best Value Inspection of the council.

"This work began immediately, and the meticulous and robust manner in which it is being delivered is leaving no stone unturned, as we gain a detailed yet clearer understanding of our financial position and actions we will take to improve and reform the council. 

"I will continue to keep my promise to be open, transparent and honest throughout this process to you all, and have personally pledged that we will not sugar-coat what we discover and what it means for our staff, residents and partners.

"We will shortly report on the extent of the issues we face and only by establishing and sharing this information can we properly plan for a stable and sustainable financial future.

"The council – members and staff – alongside the Commissioners, share the same single focus: to help Thurrock Council achieve financial stability in a way that is sustainable and protects the services our residents and partners know and value.

"Together, we are already forming a comprehensive improvement and recovery plan and will soon be entering into informed conversations with Government on how they can support us as we move toward recovery. 

"Without doubt the situation is difficult and I will not pretend otherwise, but the council is still operating, services are running, and we continue to honour our contractual commitments to our partners. 

"Thurrock is somewhere I feel proud to call home. I have not lost sight of this and I believe in the future of the council and this borough. Our communities and businesses are not only key to this, they are the reason I have full confidence that Thurrock will continue not just to grow, but to thrive."

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