Thurrock Council – a case study of collapse

It’s been six months since we moved away from Thurrock to start a new life in Keynsham down in Somerset. Even though we’ve been away from Thurrock for six months, what can best be described as the collapse of Thurrock Council continues to have a hold over us. Not least because we’ve got friends back there who will be suffering the consequences of the council’s bungling and ineptitude for years to come. These are pretty much all of the posts we’ve written about this sorry saga since the start of 2022:

Down the drain 21.12.22

Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse… 17.9.22

Spiralling down the drain 14.9.22

Meanwhile, in other news… 9.9.22

So it comes to pass… 3.9.22

Transparency? 17.7.22

Seriously, you couldn’t make this up if you tried! 12.2.22

How much lower can Thurrock Council sink FFS?! 9.2.22

A fair number of the above posts focus on the £1.5 billion of debt Thurrock Council have racked up as a consequence of a failed ‘borrow to invest’ scheme. However, there have been other issues such as over-running, botched and stalled infrastructure projects. These take in the cost and deadline over-run on the A13 widening: This sorry saga rolls on…and on…and on… 15.12.21 onto the sorry saga of the extension to the council offices in New Road, Grays: Pretty much to be expected TBH:( 5.1.22 and last but by no means least the demolition in 2019 and the subsequent non-rebuilding of what was our local railway station: The sorry saga of Stanford-le-Hope railway station continues… 30.1.22.

Thurrock Council are in the deepest of deep shite and their performance has been roundly condemned by a local government minister, one Lee Rowley. Not only does he condemn the council for the lack of oversight that allowed a debt of £1.5 billion to accumulate, he also has a go at them for their failures regarding the above mentioned infrastructure projects. This latest saga is well covered in this piece by Neil Speight in Thurrock Nub News: The damned council! Details emerge of scathing criticism of officers and leadership. Top tiers of management may be sacked. Report says there was a culture of insularity and complacency and Thurrock Council was run in state of ‘unconscious incompetence’ 24.1.23. As an aside, that headline’s almost an executive summary!

There’s still a lot to be uncovered at Thurrock Council. However, the announcement that up to three tiers of senior management at the council may lose their jobs clearly indicates that there was a lack of oversight and close supervision of the senior officers. That lack of oversight may have led them to think they had a fair bit more power than would normally be the case and they chose to exercise it without being aware of their own limitations. One such limitation being piss poor communication between officers which led to some pretty bad decisions. The most notable from our point of view being the decision to demolish the railway station at Stanford-le-Hope before properly costed and worked out plans for a new station had been finalised. Our friends back in Stanford-le-Hope have told us that as things currently stand, there’s no sign of any work getting underway at the station.

The Tory ruling group councillors failed abysmally in their duty to oversee and supervise the work of their senior officers. Having mentioned the political composition of the ruling group, this goes beyond party politics because, councillors of any political hue could be equally at fault for poor oversight. Having met some of the ruling group councillors on a few occasions, our overall impression is that they’re basically naïve, albeit prone to episodes of arrogance and hubris. To accuse them of any malice in overseeing what to all intents and purposes is the collapse of Thurrock Council would be giving them too much in the way of agency. To put it bluntly, they were out of their depth.

The last post we published was this: Complexity, collapse and radical change 23.1.23. Right, this may be a bit of a stretch but, we can be forgiven for wondering if a combination of naïve ruling group councillors and a cohort of senior officers who to put it bluntly, were working above their level of ability is a sign of a deeper malaise. Now we’ve been down in Keynsham for six months, while none of the local and regional authorities here can match Thurrock Council in racking up a £1.5 billion debt, they sure as heck can match them for hubris, arrogance and incompetence. We understand that local government is a complex undertaking and that inevitably, some mistakes will be made but, the level of what’s going wrong is starting to ring a few alarm bells.

Complex systems always seem to carry the seeds of their own destruction. With an education system that seems incapable of encouraging original thought, getting people to join the dots and ask difficult questions at any level, people are taking on roles and responsibilities they’re not fully equipped for. Basically, they’re winging it. They’re certainly not taking a holistic look at their systems and asking how they can be made more effective and accountable to the public they’re supposed to be serving. The joke is that you ask most residents for an opinion and they’ll come up with something a lot more sensible and workable than any local authority seems to be capable of. At the end if the day, it’s life experience and common sense that count for more than the university degrees that the senior officers in local authorities possess.

What’s happening to Thurrock Council is an eye opener on what happens when systems get so complex it’s impossible for anyone to have a clear overview of what’s going on. It’s like they’re set up to fail. Whether that’s intentional or a consequence of a clustef**k of factors depends on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are! For the moment, we’re going for the clusterf**k theory, albeit with the qualification that a collapse of local governance across the board would suit a number of corporate and financial interests wishing to screw us even further into the ground while they accrue more wealth and power. We’ll leave it here for the moment, albeit there’s a lot more that needs to be analysed and written about…

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