Dave – the editor
With my Thurrock and Basildon Heckler hat on, I’ve become a frustrated and often angry observer of the workings and failings of local authorities. I’ve seen a lack of transparency and accountability. I’ve seen arrogance and a total lack of humility. I’ve mistakes, failures and sheer incompetence covered up and excused. I’ve seen disjointed thinking and a failure to develop a holistic overview. The only way I can describe what I and many others see is ‘institutional rot’.
The local authorities who are supposed to be the servants of the public are in fact, anything but. I’m not naïve enough to believe there ever was a golden age of local democracy and governance. However, what I and many others dealing with local councils are seeing is a dangerous disconnect with the public they’re supposed to be serving.
Many commentators have noted the low turnouts at local elections. Turnouts so low that whoever gets elected as a councillor, if they’re being really honest, should acknowledge that they don’t have any real degree of legitimacy. An honest councillor would be open about that – sadly, they appear to be in the minority. I’ve attended a couple of election counts and the celebrations of the winning candidates leave a bad taste in the mouth, because once you’ve done the maths and taken into consideration a turnout that’s only around the 30% mark, it turns out that only about 20% of eligible voters will have endorsed them.
Why is voter turnout so low? It’s because most people are savvy enough to realise that when it comes to the running of our local authorities, the senior officers have a lot of clout. Senior officers cannot be elected and unelected. Ruling group councillors should hold senior officers fully to account for their decisions. There have been too many occasions where this has not happened.
Just one example of a failure to hold senior council officers to account is the unanswered question as to why, as part of the Thurrock Council sponsored ‘re-development’ of the railway station at Stanford-le-Hope, perfectly serviceable station buildings were demolished without fully properly planned and costed plans in place for new structures. This is taken from a blog post published on The Thurrock and Basildon Heckler on July 9, 2021:
A simple question for Thurrock Council regarding Stanford-le-Hope railway station…
There’s a reason that we’re asking this question and here it is: Council puts transport interchange plan for Stanford rail station on hold and is attempting to get green light for station rebuild on its own. But will it bust its own budget?
The original plan for the redevelopment of the railway station was to move the footprint of the station to allow for a bus interchange at the front. Due to a botched development process, it transpired that this plan was not workable. Even though this plan was never fully worked out and costed, the ticket office, coffee kiosk and the down ticket gateline were demolished regardless, way back in February 2019!
When it became apparent that the original plan could not be fulfilled, an alternative plan was hatched which would see a re-built station pretty much on the footprint of what was there before the demolition, with the bus interchange and some parking provision on the site of Daybreak Windows.
Councillors on the planning committee were asked back in February to approve plans for the re-build of the station with the plans for the bus interchange to follow. The councillors refused, saying they wanted to review and discuss the plans for the station in their totality. As you can gather from the Thurrock Nub News piece linked to above, the council want to try again at getting the station re-build underway with the bus interchange following on at some point in the future. You can read the full report on the station redevelopment here.
So, the question remains unanswered – why, when Thurrock Council knew they didn’t have a fully worked out and costed plan, did they give permission for a perfectly serviceable station building to be demolished? Here’s a supplementary question – do they think it’s acceptable for staff and passengers to have to use a temporary cabin located on the other side of a busy main road as a ticket office? Let’s throw in another question – did they undertake a risk assessment for an arrangement that forces passengers to have to cross a busy main road to get from the ticket office to the station? Lastly, are staff and passengers ever going to get a full apology from Thurrock Council for this debacle?
The issue with the botched station re-development is the lack of transparency and accountability from Thurrock Council. Staff at the station, passengers and residents of the town are owed an explanation for what happened and a full apology. In the general scheme of things, it shouldn’t be that hard to do. We’re all human, we all screw up at times. Screwing up can provide an opportunity for honesty about why things went wrong, an opportunity to learn from the mistakes made and an opportunity to honestly communicate that to the people affected by these failings. Thurrock Council have shown a stubborn unwillingness to do any of the above.
Another example of institutional rot is when a drastic event happens, the council promise to deliver a report into what happened and why, but when the report is delivered, it’s clear that a number of contributory factors have been completely disregarded. Thurrock was badly hit by flooding back in January 2021. There was a lot of speculation as to why the flooding was so bad. Some of that speculation was a bit off the mark but a lot of it was based on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom residents have about the areas they live in. Knowledge and wisdom that Thurrock Council disregarded when they delivered their report into the flooding. This is taken from a blog post published on The Thurrock and Basildon Heckler on July 6, 2021:
The report into January’s flooding across Thurrock has finally arrived…
Many residents in Thurrock will not forget the flooding the borough suffered back in January. These are the posts we wrote about what, from our point of view from a neighbourhood badly hit by the flooding, was basically a clusterf**k:
Draw your own conclusions… – January 30, 2021
(Almost) the right homes but – on the WRONG site! – January 24, 2021
Stretched… – January 19, 2021
After the flood…the questions… – January 16, 2021
A lack of joined up thinking = a clusterf**k! – January 14, 2021
That’s a lot of posts over a short period about one issue but as we had a pretty narrow escape from having a flooded house, please forgive us if we take it personally! Not long after these floods, Thurrock Council said they would be preparing a report on what caused the flooding and what measures could be brought in to deal with similar situations in the future. Well it’s now out… This is how it is being covered in the local media: Natural events blamed for Thurrock floods – with Environment Agency and council playing down concerns about mechanical failures, roadwork impact and more houses. But a new action plan is in place and £3 million will be spent on defences. And you can download the full report from here.
It would seem that Thurrock Council are saying that the flooding was the result of the months of December and January being the wettest recorded in the region in a hundred years. It was certainly wet. The rain in January was falling on ground that was already waterlogged. Any excess water had no where to go so flooding was inevitable. That much is true. However, there are always exacerbating factors and our gut feeling from reading the Thurrock Nub News piece is that they’ve been downplayed.
In Stanford-le-Hope, they were the long running A13 widening works and the new home building in the area. A fair number of locals are convinced that the A13 widening works have drastically altered the way surrounding land in the area drains, thereby exacerbating the flooding risk. The new homes are putting the existing sewerage and drainage systems under extra pressure. One new development at Stanford Meadows is on flat, low lying ground adjacent to a stream. The two ponds constructed by the developer on the eastern fringe of the development by the stream simply couldn’t cope with the amount of water and overflowed. New housing is planned for a site on the eastern side of the railway on land bounded by another stream that runs behind Victoria Road. Part of this site gets waterlogged every winter and is to all intents and purposes, on a flood plain.
As for the flooding over in Bulphan, that was down to a faulty sluice gate leading to floodwater backing up along much of the Mar Dyke valley and basin.
Any report on flooding has to take a holistic overview. We know it’s easy to say this from behind a keyboard and appreciate that such an overview would entail a lot of work and deep thinking. Such a report may well come up with conclusions that put the council and other authorities and agencies under an unwelcome spotlight. So be it. Any report that skirts around awkward issues such as inadequate planning processes and leaves residents at risk of future flooding is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
The report says that an Action Plan will be created to deal with future flooding events. These involve things such as better and more advanced warning to residents of impending flood risks. Also mentioned are improvements to co-ordination between the council and other relevant authorities and agencies. These recommendations are obviously welcome but by and large, they tend to be reactive.
After the floods when we were discussing the events and issues with the neighbours, undertaking work in the upper catchments to stem the flow of water was something we thought would be worthwhile. So, it’s gratifying to see it mentioned in the report:)
The report is patchy. There are issues that should have been confronted and dealt with – instead, they were evaded. On the other hand, there are a few useful but piecemeal recommendations. A tentative step in the right direction but a lot more work needs to be done. Most importantly, input from the residents is an absolute must.
It’s bad enough when contributory factors to a flooding situation are disregarded because they would lead to questions being raised about the planning policies of the council. Policies that continue to allow development on floodplains despite a massive body of evidence pointing out the risks associated with this. What makes matters worse is when a discussion scheduled to take place to discuss a report into the situation doesn’t happen because of what can only be described as a staggering level of incompetence. This is taken from a blog post published on The Thurrock and Basildon Heckler on July 8, 2021:
What an utter farce…
The report into the flooding that occurred across Thurrock back in January was due to have been discussed at the council’s planning, transportation and regeneration overview and scrutiny committee on Tuesday 6 July. Well, that discussion never happened and here’s why: Officers’ ‘no show’ and technical gaffes mean vital flooding questions remain unanswered. Committee chair tells of his ‘particular disappointment’ at decision by officers to stay at home!
The meeting was held at the Thameside Theatre. The elected councillors who had to attend the meeting were there in person. The officers who were supposed to present the report opted to do so via a video link from the comfort of their own homes. This is despite the lifting of a number Covid19 restrictions which would have allowed the officers to appear in person. In the news report linked to above, there’s an image of the chamber where the meeting was held and from what we saw, there was plenty of room for officers to sit and physically distance from others if they wished to do so. Over-relying on technology for your communications can trip you up and that’s what happened when the TV screens in the meeting chamber failed to work!
The next scheduled meeting of the planning, transportation and regeneration overview and scrutiny committee where the flooding report can be discussed is set for October. For residents whose homes were flooded and those of us who experienced a near miss from the flooding, that’s too long to wait. From what we can understand, the recommendations in the report can’t start to be fully implemented until they have been discussed in depth. Granted some of what has been recommended is long term stuff but there are some proposals which if given the go ahead, can be implemented in the short term in time for next winter. The chair of the committee, Cllr. Alex Anderson, was less than pleased by the failure of the officers to attend in person. He’s looking at holding an extraordinary meeting before October in a bid to get things moving. For the sake of everyone affected by the flooding, we sincerely hope this can happen…
There’s a pattern emerging of leading council officers not turning up in person to important meetings. The chief executive, Lyn Carpenter didn’t turn up for the general services committee meeting that was held on Monday 5 July. In fact she didn’t even bother to appear via a video link FFS! Regular readers of this blog may well have noted that we keep banging on about unelected and unaccountable leading council officers. We do it because we feel we have an obligation to let the residents of Thurrock know that the officers we pay for out of our council tax are letting us down.
These are just a few of the many examples we could have used to highlight what can only be described as the blight of institutional rot that’s afflicting Thurrock Council – and pretty much every other local authority up and down the land. Local authorities have become too big in terms of the geographical areas they cover and as a consequence, too distant from the residents they’re supposed to be serving. They’ve become so big that it’s getting harder for councillors to have a full overview of what’s being done by senior council officers in their name. That explains why there’s a perception that senior officers have more clout than elected councillors.
There’s also a perception that the upper echelons of local authority bureaucracy exist for the sake of existing. Senior council officers and a fair number of councillors seem to have forgotten that their role is to serve the residents who pay their salaries and allowances. It could be argued that they’ve forgotten so much of this that they barely raise an eyebrow when turnouts for local elections continue to decline.
Is there a solution to this? There is but how we get there is a matter of some debate.
What needs to happen is that power comes from the grassroots upwards and is not exercised from the top down. A lot more decision making needs to be done at ward level and that needs to be informed by resident input facilitated by a system of street / estate representatives. Every representative and councillor needs to be regarded as a delegate – recallable if it’s felt that they’re not representing the wishes of the residents or that they’re being manipulated by dubious interests. Any officers employed under this system will be there to provide the necessary expertise needed to facilitate the wises of the residents. The officers would understand that their role is to serve the residents, not to dictate to them.
Utopian? Yes, very utopian, but in order to go forward, we need a vision to aim for. Realisable? To be honest, only after a major social, political and economic transformation. The point about this piece is to highlight how the institutional rot we see in our local authorities is not the problem in and of itself but symptomatic of something a lot deeper. If this piece gets people thinking about this and the ways towards a solution, then it will have served its purpose.