The Chair agreed to bring forward the report
in the agenda.
Councillor Abbas introduced the report and stated that the Council was currently facing difficult financial challenges, so the report needed to be considered in this context. He added that his Portfolio had also been extended and now included the Community Safety Partnership. Councillor Abbas explained that his Portfolio had faced many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, but most services had returned to normal in May 2022. He explained that the museum had reopened, and their focus was to digitise their collection by June 2023 and work closely with other local museums to diversify their exhibitions. He stated that the Thameside Theatre required ongoing works due to the life of the building, but the Council had recently increased the seating capacity and undertook maintenance to the vent system. Councillor Abbas clarified that although the Council received grant funding from different organisations for the Thameside Theatre, these were not enough to cover running and maintenance costs.
Councillor Abbas moved on and explained that the Council also ran a Community Led Local Development (CLLD) scheme, which helped to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups in the borough, whilst trying to decrease the level of unemployment. He stated that 1000 SMEs had been contacted as part of the scheme, and 150 residents contacted regarding employment, with 70 of these helped to return to work. He added that he had met with a variety of community groups and voluntary groups during his Portfolio, including those from diverse communities who were harder to reach. He stated that the team had helped link these groups with Council services during the interfaith marketplace which had taken place in the Town Hall. He added that a new Hindu place of prayer had been established within Thurrock, as well as a new Muslim burial site and Gurkha burial site at West Thurrock Cemetery. Councillor Abbas explained that the team had recently been running cost-of-living events to assist residents and businesses with advice and support during the cost-of-living crisis.
Councillor Abbas moved on and stated that the Purfleet Hub had reopened in March 2022 and were now holding classes, had a community fridge and pantry, and a school uniform bank. He thanked officers and volunteers for their hard work at the Purfleet Hub. He added that Grays Library had joined the Library Consortium in April 2022, which allowed members of Grays Library to access 7.3million books, magazines, newspapers, and documents online. He added that Grays Library had also been a deposit for Lower Thames Crossing consultation documents and was now a Barclays Bank hub. He added that in November 2022 libraries had also introduced wi-fi printing and were supporting residents to access mobile phone SIM cards. He added that in March 2023 the public health team would be running a session to upskill the libraries team to ensure better health outcomes for residents.
Councillor Abbas explained that the registrar team had recently moved to the Town Hall, and a simplified process for registering had been implemented. He stated that this meant the team had exceeded their income target and were providing residents with an efficient service. He summarised and stated that he had recently become the Portfolio Holder for the Community Safety Partnership, whose main focusses for 2023 would be tackling violence against women and girls, domestic abuse, and modern-day slavery and human trafficking. He explained they would also be working to reduce hate crime, anti-social behaviour, drug and drunk driving, gangs, and offensive weapons. He stated that they had recently begun a safe street scheme which would work through community engagement.
Councillor Carter thanked the Portfolio Holder for his report and asked how many people were attending the Hindu place of prayer, and if it remained popular. Councillor Abbas confirmed that services remained ongoing every third Sunday of the month and the community were grateful to have the space in Thurrock. Councillor Arnold questioned if the Portfolio Holder was considering a strategy to ensure larger productions were encouraged to come to Thurrock, either at the Thameside or other locations. Councillor Abbas felt that the Thameside was important for art and culture within the borough, but could be impractical as it was laid out over two floors and did not have a big enough stage for travelling productions. He wanted to take the arts and culture offer to different communities across Thurrock, rather than focus on one building.
Councillor Holloway explained that Harlow Council had recently applied for, and were granted, a £20m grant for arts and culture projects from the levelling up fund. She asked why Thurrock Council had not applied for this bid. Councillor Abbas explained that Thurrock had secured arts funding through the Arts Council, which had been allocated to community groups such as Coda Dance Club and Arts Outburst. Councillor Kent echoed Councillor Holloway’s question and asked if the Portfolio Holder had directed officers to apply for the bid. The Assistant Director of Economic Growth and Partnerships explained that officers did consider applying for the bid, but the decision was taken not to bid because Thurrock was identified as a priority 2 place, behind other priority 1 places who had been allocated capacity funding to support their bids. He added that to bid would have required significant investment from the Council upfront to put a bid together, and increased capacity to deliver that the Council did not currently have. Councillor Holloway felt that the Thameside Theatre was important to develop arts and culture with children and young people and asked if the Portfolio Holder would meet with them to discuss the future of the theatre. Councillor Abbas stated that he regularly visited the Thameside and would be happy to meet with any groups or forums to discuss the theatre and consider their recommendations.
Councillor Arnold highlighted improvements to the registry service outlined on page 43 of the report and asked what further improvements were planned. Councillor Abbas explained that the team had worked to introduce new technology into the registry office, meaning weddings could be video streamed to people who could not attend in person, and a simplified website now made it easier for people who needed to use the service.
Councillor Holloway asked for the list of groups that had met with Councillor Abbas to be sent to the Committee. She also queried how the Portfolio was planning to make the required £90,000 of savings, and if the Committee could also see those proposals. She sought assurances that the Portfolio Holder was not planning to close any Thurrock libraries, and that funding given from Thurrock Council to local women’s and domestic abuse survivors groups would not be stopped. Councillor Abbas agreed to send the list of groups he had met with to the Committee. He also confirmed that there were no current plans to close the libraries, but if this was proposed then it would need to go consultation and the relevant scrutiny committee. He added that all services would need to be transformed due to the current financial issues, but the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee would be kept updated and the process would be transparent. He added that he was in touch with the voluntary sector and spending panels to assess all funding. He stated that he was committed to protecting women and girls that had suffered from domestic abuse and violence, and they would be provided with appropriate support.
Councillor Kent stated that the proposed Cultural Strategy and Plan for Culture would be the third time in six years this had been developed, the last one being in 2019 when consultants had been brought in to assist. He asked if the Committee could see the outcomes from the previous Cultural Strategies, and how the Portfolio Holder would ensure this version was completed and implemented. Councillor Abbas confirmed that the previous strategies and consultations would be shared with the Committee. Councillor Kent also questioned when Thurrock Museum would be accredited with the Arts Council. Councillor Abbas replied that the Council remained committed to accreditation and had made a bid to the Arts Council. He explained that this bid had been withdrawn at the suggestion of the Arts Council in 2021 due to the uncertainty of the future of the Thameside Complex.
Councillor Kent added that the People and Place Bid had now been granted, but required £10,000 per year funding from Thurrock Council and free usage of the libraries and theatre. He asked if this funding would continue given the Council’s financial situation. The Assistant Director Economic Partnerships and Growth confirmed that the current position of the Council was to continue with this funding and free usage of the buildings. Councillor Kent summarised and commented that although the Thameside Theatre was small, it had the capability to hold professional productions. He felt that arts and culture needed a base in Thurrock, and productions would be unable or unwilling to travel and hold shows in venues such as village halls and schools. He stated that productions had previously been held in venues such as the Tilbury Cruise Terminal and a marquee in Blackshots, but these had been expensive to run. Councillor Thandi queried the Violence Against Woman and Girls Strategy project in Grays. Councillor Abbas replied that the team had organised pop up events and engaged with the community to raise awareness of the issue.
The Chair sought assurance that any updates on the Thameside Theatre would be brought back to the Committee, and Councillor Abbas agreed.
Councillor Abbas left the meeting at 8.26pm.