Thurrock Tories vote to bring the guillotine down on transparency, truth, accountability and democracy. Knowing where council has invested its borrowed hundreds of millions is 'not in the public interest' says leader

By Neil Speight

27th Jan 2022 | Local News

THURROCK Conservative councillors halted bids to breach restrictions on transparency and democracy by bringing the curtain down prematurely on a meeting of the borough council, avoiding the need for its senior members to have to answer difficult questions.

The saga played out this evening (Wednesday, 26 January) when bids to bring controversial issues into the open were thwarted as Tory councillors elected to go home rather than complete a packed council agenda at its latest full meeting.

The Tories, who all pick up an annual allowance for public service of £9,200 – with many of the senior members pocketing at least another £11,000 a year for their 'executive roles – ganged up on opposition councillors and even one of their own who wanted questions answered about a block on media interaction, deciding two and a half hours of their time was enough of a commitment to democracy.

At the heart of the matter were questions about the ruling group's ban on interaction with Thurrock Nub News because of our probing questions about a number of questionable activities and a reluctance to face up to proven instances where top Tories had given out misleading information to councillors and the borough public.

The ban on answering questions from Nub News, and its editor Neil speight, was imposed by the council in December – though no officer or councillor has put his or her name to an edict issued in the same of 'democratic services'.

We first reported this ban on December 15.

Over recent months our range of probing questions about the integrity of council decision-making, botched infrastructure projects, massive overspending and huge payouts to consultants (among other issues) have clearly irked leading Tories and members of the council's senior officer cohort.

That culminated at the last full meeting of the council in November when central services portfolio holder Cllr Jack Duffin delivered a report on the council's opaque new communications strategy, including misinformation about consultations and interaction with the media.

In the wake of that meeting, Nub News was told its questions to the council would no longer be answered. Earlier today the BBC's Local Democracy Reporting Service – which is managed locally by Newquest who publish the Thurrock Gazette - updated its readers on the situation with a belated report on communications issues.

Weeks after the ban was issued it said the council had blacklisted a 'local news outlet'.

And added: "Neil Speight, editor of Thurrock Nub News, no longer receives responses to requests for information from Thurrock Council's media team.

"Opposition councillors have raised the snub with a motion criticising the decision.

"In the motion, Labour group leader Cllr John Kent, said: 'This council believes that a free press is a cornerstone of a fully functioning democracy. Therefore, this council is appalled at the decision to, effectively, blacklist the editor of Thurrock Nub News – Neil Speight – and calls on legal and democratic services to reverse their decision and fully engage with Mr Speight and all bona fide journalists."

However, the motion never saw the light of day as the ruling group turned off the spotlight by delivering a guillotine on the meeting, refusing Labour's request to carry on with matters on the agenda.

Council leader and top Tory Cllr Rob Gledhill smirked as he said the decision was saving council taxpayers money as the authority wouldn't have to pay extra cash for the hire of the South Essex College auditorium where the meeting was taking place (after the council failed to deliver on a pledge to have its new and controversial multi-million pound office extension and new civic chamber completed on schedule).

He and colleagues then laughed off an offer by independent group councillor Gary Byrne to pay for the additional hire charges if the meeting was extended!

Cllr Gledhill also denied that his leadership and administration were breaching the expected standards of openness, transparency and public conduct laid down in accordance with the Nolan Principles of Standards in Public Life. See his responses in our video which also shows a brief moment of levity when Cllr Luke Spillman's mobile phone went off.

When 9.30pm arrived with many items still waiting to be debated, time was called.

Also unanswered were two questions by Tory councillor Sue Little, chair of the council's corporate service overview and scrutiny committee, who had asked Cllr Duffin:

  • Please can you inform council of the true and accurate timeline regarding the events surrounding the Communications Strategy?
  • Can the portfolio holder explain the reasons the council has chosen not to engage with Nub News please?

Nor was a further question from Cllr Kent to Cllr Duffin, which read: "The 13th of October cabinet report for Communications Strategy 2021- 24 says that no feedback was received from any local media outlet within the deadline provided of 27 September, however, one response was received on 4 October. At the council meeting held on 24th of November, the portfolio holder claimed that one response had been received with the deadline. Can he explain the reason for this discrepancy?

Cllr Little and Cllr Kent have indicated they will bring their questions and motion back to February's meeting.

After the meeting Mr Speight delivered a damning Facebook critique of the Conservative group's actions which, within a couple of hours, had been viewed by thousands of people and attracted many comments damning the Conservatives' actions.

Some drew direct comparisons with the antics and controversies of PM Boris Johnson and his apparent disregard for truth, accountability and responsibility, expressing little surprise that local Tory hierarchy were simply mimicking their leaders.

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