FOUR top Thurrock Council officers have recently spent days at a south of France conference and have come under fire for taking up the offer of a “multi-thousand pound jolly.”
The trip, led by chief executive Lyn Carpenter, and including planning chief Andy Millard, and director of “place” Steve Cox, was to the annual MIPIM conference in Cannes. The fourth officer is thought to be Ms Karen Wheeler, the council’s “director of strategy, communications and customer service”.
Plans for the trip are referenced in several publically available council documents and reports but it came to the attention of media reporters who attended a recent cabinet meeting when council leader, Cllr Rob Gledhill, announced apologies for Ms Carpenter, Mr Cox, “and others” at the start of the meeting.
Though officers were at the resort for several days we have learned that the one formal interaction between Thurrock and delegates was one breakfast meeting hosted by the four officers .
The event was held in the Le Gray d’Albion hotel close to the beach at the southern France resort and arranged through marketing organisation 3foxinternational.
Delegates to the MIPIM conference were invited to attend and “meet the chief executive and her senior team”.
3foxinternational described the event as: “A networking breakfast for Thurrock Council seeking developers and investors to partner with it on upcoming opportunities.”
It goes on: “£20 billion is being invested in Thurrock to build homes, create jobs and provide infrastructure, with 32,000 new homes to be built.”
The Independent believes the cost of the trip by officers was covered by organisations like iSec, Swan Housing, and NU Living.
iSec is an American-based international organisation which describes itself as an “innovative and cutting-edge construction company”, while Swan Housing Association operates in Essex and east London, and which – according to its website – has NU Living as its “in-house developer”.
John Kent, the Labour Party’s parliamentary candidate for the Thurrock constituency, and former leader of Thurrock Council, said: “Initially when I first heard of this jaunt, I was angry that officers of this council had gone at tax-payers’ expense, but then I was told that it was paid for by developers.
“I’m sorry, but that’s even worse. What do these developers expect in return? Is Thurrock’s future worth so little?
“There was talk of going to MIPIM when I was leader, but we quickly put a stop to that. Yes we talked to developers, but they came to us or we went to them.
“There was no need for a multi-thousand pound jolly to the south of France.
“Thurrock’s regeneration story is good enough alone if the right people are fronting it.”
Cllr Kent’s comments sparked a strong reaction from the conservative leader of Thurrock Council, Cllr Rob Gledhill, who told the Thurrock Independent: “I am thoroughly disgusted at John Kent and frankly so should everyone else at this little outburst. He spent six years running this council and borough into the ground, cutting vital services more readily than cutting the grass with his view of the horizon no further than Barking and Dagenham.
“The idea that investment in the borough will land in our laps shows his lack of foresight and passion for Thurrock. Every group leader agreed that this trip should be part of the Chief Executive’s annual targets and she has achieved it at no cost to the taxpayer.
“To then further try and do a hatchet job on a development partner of Thurrock that is investing £millions in infrastructure before building homes, something he never managed to do in his taxpayer funded role on the failed Development Corporation, is just astounding. Hopefully he hasn’t put at risk the new road, medical centre, school and town centre that as part of the Purfleet regeneration Swan Housing is helping to fund.
“We all know Cllr Kent’s record of slashing service, overspending, boosting Barking and Dagenham and ‘let’s blame government’ when it came to him running Thurrock. Now in opposition he seems not only out of touch with his group leader but as intent on continuing to do as much as he can to put Thurrock down.”
Thurrock’s commitment to developing 32,000 new homes in the borough has been referenced in several council documents and in consultations with residents. However, how the figure was arrived at – and what level of infrastructure support would come with adding half as many houses as there currently are in the borough, remains a mystery.
As far as the Thurrock Independent can ascertain the matter has never come up for approval or discussion at formal meetings involving councillors.
Over recent weeks we have pressed the council for answers to questions about the 32,000 figure but it has declined to be forthcoming.
Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight said: “It is concerning that developers who take senior officers to France for a few days are briefed about what they can expect to get from Thurrock, but councillors, residents and the media are not given the same information.
“Despite the authority’s chiefs protesting a contrary view (which included threatening to report the Thurrock Independent to the Independent Press Standards Organisation) our recent assertion that Thurrock Council is a secretive organisation that treats the public with contempt seems to remain a supportable argument.”
A spokesperson for the council said: “Having a presence at MIPIM as essential to compete for growth and investment, to attract developers committed to delivering high quality places and ensuring infrastructure led growth that benefits existing and future residents. The council believes this is totally the right approach for both residents and businesses, and attendance at MIPIM gives the council a unique platform to promote Thurrock to the most influential worldwide investors at the property industry’s largest international event.
“Residents can be assured that no public money was spent on the trip – as the council successfully attracted commercial and sponsorship interest in the borough, the trip to MIPIM for the four officers who went cost the council tax payers of Thurrock exactly zero pounds and pence.
“Attendance at MIPIM was clearly identified as a key objective for the Chief Executive for the year 2017/18, as part of our performance development review framework. This was signed off by General Services Committee (GSC) on Wednesday 15 November 2017, the committee is made up of the Leader and Deputy Leaders of all three political parties in Thurrock. Full support for all progress being made within the review, including preparations for MIPIM, was signed off as part of the final year appraisal for the Chief Executive by GSC on Wednesday 7 March 2018.”
Cllr Graham Snell told the Thurrock Independent: “I attended the General Services Committee last November where we discussed the CEO’s appraisal. The appraisal was given the approval of the committee. The MIPIM event was not highlighted and was not discussed at that meeting.
“However, for clarity, this is not something I would object to. While the merits of the Government instruction to plan for around 36,000 houses can be debated and argued against, the fact remains that we are compelled to obey the Government. Therefore it is absolutely the case that our officers should seek the best ideas and the best partnerships to help implement our local plans.
“As members, we will expect to see any fruits of the MIPIM event presented to us at a future meeting and I am sure that will be the case. There is no doubt that Thurrock will change. Government insists that it does. I and my party will be seeking to ensure that any housing development is sympathetic to existing communities and will seek to get the best outcomes for existing Thurrock residents.”
Cllr Oliver Gerrish, leader of the council’s Labour group, said: “We accept there must be growth. We also accept that the council is bound by the process set by Government and that we therefore must have evidence if we are to depart from the current figure. However, we are concerned at that scale of growth over a short time period and the impact it will have on infrastructure, traffic and air quality.
“To that end, we proposed an amendment at the recent council budget meeting to invest some of the projected surplus to robustly scrutinise the evidence on building that many houses in Thurrock. This felt appropriate for a change of this scale and significance.”