The Mayor stated that following draft directions between the Secretary of State and commissioners, the Acting Chief Executive, Ian Wake, would return to his former post as Director of Adults, Housing and Health when the new managing director had been appointed. The Mayor stated that the Council would not have made it this far through the recovery process if it had not been for Ian Wake, the advice received had always been exemplary, he welcomed challenge and had been an outstanding advocate both in private and public. With Ian Wake having an incredible future, and with that future in Thurrock, the residents of Thurrock would have a bright future.
The Mayor reminded Members that nominations were still welcomed for the Mayoral Roll of Honour.
The Mayor paid his respect to former Councillor Merlyn Jones who had sadly passed, to which a minute silence was held.
Councillor M Coxshall, Leader of the Council, made the following statement:
“This week it had become clearer than ever that all 49 of us need to really look at ourselves and ask whether we have done enough. The Minster presented a written statement and accompanying letters from the commissions which gave a taste of the Best Value Inspection to come. We now have 10 days to make representations. I can say today I requested a General Services Committee to meet and discuss our response if needed and as chair all Members will be welcome and to speak. Please remember though this is a look back exercise at what happened previously and does not mention the work that had taken place since 2 September 2022. For me, one of the important quotes in this statement was “it was important to make clear that the Council’s financial difficulties are the consequence of the dysfunction within the Council and not the cause of it”. What this points to, was a poor culture and systemic weakness within this Council not just the governing party at the time. As it also says, it was also about lack of consistent strategic direction over many years, inadequate governance arrangements and weaknesses in internal controls. Those were the issues that must be addressed by all 49 of us. The decision taken by this Council were ones which were done in the name of all 49 of us. The process and record keeping provided an audit trail for accountability which was absent here in Thurrock. This was why I put so much emphasis on transparency. Sunlight was the best disinfectant. I must say though it was also the strategic weakness that Thurrock was too small to be a unitary authority, it was also the weakness that comes from successive minority administrations over 13 years, it was also about our mechanisms for accountability and security issues. I am horrified to learn in this report that our accountability structures do not appear to be lawful and that we have lacked a statutory scrutiny officer. It was for our legal officers to ensure that our procedures were compliant and that had been lacking here. There was a whole situation of weakness that had created this situation. These cultural issues go beyond the party colour of any administration, and it was up to all of us to work collectively to take these. The commissioners documented the failures in political and managerial leadership with challenge discussed and ignored and the normal checks and balances were not operating. Leading to a state of “unconscious incompetence”. In terms of how financial management took place decisions were made in the name of this Council without proper oversight by Members. At the time of the council meeting which Members opposite have referred to, there was a clear instruction from that meeting that borrowing should be scaled back. It was not until the Government were forced to intervene that it became clear that had not happened. We still need to establish how this was able to take place in the absence of an instruction from this Council. There were observations with which I totally concur with, Members have not been well served by the production of paperwork and agendas that enable scrutiny and the ability to take informed decisions. Members are not an inconvenience to be managed. We are here to protect the interests of the residents. When we are treated poorly, the people of Thurrock are treated poorly. There needed to be a sea change in the way in which Members and officers work together. The commissions illustrate just why the financial intervention took place came as such a shock. As it stated the Council agreed a set of principles which should have been acted on as the framework for the investment programme, but there was, no audit, no reporting, and no delegated authority. This allowed borrowing to increase when we all believed it was being scaled back. What needs to happen now was for us all to focus on the future and addressing the systemic weaknesses that have been identified here. It was now clear that the assurances I was given were wrong. Since this catastrophe had materialised, I had dedicated every waking hour to try to put it right. This was how I see my duties as a public servant. I think that was what our residents of Thurrock should expect of us. We can rehearse the same partisan lines every month or we can work collectively to fix this. The opposition would have their chance at the ballot box. In the meantime, we need to do our best for the residents of Thurrock. The way politics had played out in this chamber was a factor in where we are. We had three party politics and minority administration in the mid part of the foremost of the last 13 years. That led to the difficult decisions regarding tax and spend to be ducked and was the reason why borrowing to invest began in the first place, endorsed by all involved on all sides of the chamber. As for the failure to deliver projects, as everyone understands that it was for Members to make decisions. It was for officers to implement those decisions and deliver them. People know me well enough to know I would give challenge, that challenge was like hitting a brick wall. This report indicated there were insufficient capacity to deliver major projects and I would concur with that. As for major projects, the management structures are shown to be utterly dysfunctional in this report. By way of illustration, I was utterly embarrassed personally at how this New Town Hall was handled. The attempt to cover up what had been mismanaged was utterly insulting. We were basically asked to unsee what we had seen ourselves. It convinced no one and damaged the reputation of this Council. This was why under my leadership I am being open and transparent. I hope Members will see that I have delivered on the promises I made on becoming leader, including fronting the hard knocks that come from sorting out what went before me, and I will continue to do so.”
In response to the Leaders statement, Councillor J Kent made the following statement:
“The scope of the new interventions and the further directions to Thurrock were shocking. All functions associated with the governance, scrutiny and transparency of strategic decision making by the authority to ensure compliance with the best value duty, including oversight of audit of the authority’s governance, all functions associated with the authorities operating model and redesign of Council services to achieve value for money and financial sustainability. The appointment, suspension, and dismissal of staff in the top three tiers of the organisation, including powers to determine the process for making those appointments and dismissals and to design a new officer structure. The development oversight and operation of an effective performance management framework for senior officers and of course additionally to appoint a commissioner to act as the managing director of the authority. You read that and then cross reference with the best value inspectors interim report and you can see why Government believed it had no option but to deeper that intervention in Thurrock and to do it immediately. Not to do it at the end of the process, not to do it once the best value inspection report had been published but felt the need to actually make that change now to try and get some capacity into the organisation and as the leader said we could stand here and read quotes all night but there were a few that were really telling, the leader had already said one, financial difficulties of the consequences of dysfunction within the Council and not the cause of it. This had been seen across so many services, we see it in the refuse service where we can’t get the bins emptied. As the leader had said we’ve seen it in major projects where Stanford railway station still not rebuilt, A13 widening over budget and three years late, we’ve seen it in this building, it runs right through the authority. The effective running of the Council and its ability to deliver on its ambitions have been undermined by a failure in political and managerial leadership, a lack of transparency with Members, which was shocking but not surprising. It had been something that we had been talking about for years, but nobody would listen to us. A culture of insularity and complacency within transparency of decision making, the operation of the normal and proper checks and balances have been eroded, internal challenge had been discouraged, external criticism had been routinely dismissed placing the Council in a state of unconscious incompetence. I think that line sums up where we are, with the authority, a state of unconscious incompetence. I have to say our view has not changed, we would do everything we can to work together to turn Thurrock round, we will do that because we live here, we care about the place, we invested in a place, and we want the best for the future of the borough for all our residents. But he had to say that this evening when we look forward and see that budgets can’t be balanced for the next six years and after that six years the situation starts to get worse. I don’t know what the future is for Thurrock. All I do know is that I am incredibly concerned about it. We must come together and try to do what we can to salvage what was salvageable.”
Councillor M Coxshall thanked Councillor J Kent for the offer.