Council is coy over its companies after failings were exposed

The St Chads housing regeneration project in Tilbury

AFTER the debacle and criticism surrounding the delayed building of new homes by Thurrock Council’s development company, the spotlight continues to shine on its management and accountability – with the authority remaining very tight-lipped about its affairs.

Thurrock Regeneration Ltd is a wholly-owned company set up to build new homes that it will manage, sell and rent out, mostly to the private sector – despite having a local social housing waiting list that runs into thousands.

At the turn of the year the council had 9,140 applicants on their housing waiting list. The authority is building some new social housing homes to help cut the list, including a significant development in Chadwell St Mary – but officers who sit as directors on the council’s wholly-owned Thurrock Regeneration Ltd are sanctioning building homes to put out to rent at commercial rates. Others will be built and sold for profit.

Attention recently has focused on the former allotments site at Belmont Road in Grays where a development will provide 80 new homes, of which ten will be two-bedroom bungalows, six will be two-bedroom houses, 52 will be three-bedroom houses and 12 will be four-bedroom houses.

Though largely a commercial development, from October 2020 if the original schedule is caught up, a number of homes will be available for affordable rent or shared ownership. These will be allocated to people on the council’s housing register.

A similar situation happened at St Chad’s in Tilbury where Thurrok Regeneration Limited, then known by its original name of Gloriana, built on the council-owned former St Chad’s school site. The majority of the homes there are available for private rent through private housing management company Hera Management Services.

It would appear, rather than outsource to companies like Hera, Thurrock Council officers have set up their own subsidiary company under the Thurrock Regeneration Ltd umbrella.

The Thurrock Independent has been seeking answers to a number of questions about Thurrock Regeneration Ltd, how it operates and what its guiding principles are. Also as to its accountability – very little about the company has been discussed in public or included in reports to councillors.

No elected councillors sit on the board of the company, or the recently formed subsidiary Thurrock Regeneration Homes Ltd.  The directors of the companies include a number of officers based at the Civic Offices in Grays.

They are Carol Hinvest (Assistant Director, Housing – Thurrock Council), Anna Louise Eastgate (Local Government Officer, Assistant Director), Helen Elisabeth McCabe (Secretary), Michael Alexander Jones (Accountant) and Steve Richard Greener, a civil servant from Cambridge.

Aside from Mr Greener these are all Thurrock Council staff members and they are paid by Thurrock Council. 

The council was asked for an explanation of the structure of both limited companies and when and where decisions about it were discussed.

The council responded by saying: “Thurrock Regeneration Ltd (TRL) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Thurrock Council. It was originally formed in 2014 as Gloriana Thurrock Ltd (final business case approved by Cabinet on 19 March 2014).

“The company’s main focus is to develop new homes and assist with the council’s wider regeneration ambitions.  The company changed its name from Gloriana Thurrock Ltd to Thurrock Regeneration Ltd in November 2017.

“Thurrock Regeneration Homes Ltd (TRHL) is a subsidiary of TRL. This company was set up in May 2017 to operationally manage housing assets on behalf of TRL. Any housing managed by TRHL will be for the private rental market, it will not manage council housing. 

“While TRL is a wholly owned company of the Council, it is an independent entity and has its own governance arrangements. All decisions are made by TRL’s board and in accordance with its Scheme of Delegation and other adopted company policies.  There are regular board and shareholder (the council’s General Services Committee) meetings, where financial reports are scrutinised.”

However, despite the council’s statement about scrutiny, the general services committee has not met since October last year. Meetings in November 2018 and March this year were cancelled and the minutes of previous meetings going back several years show no mention of Thurrock Regeneration Ltd or its subsidiary on the agenda.

The Thurrock Independent has asked the council a number of questions about Thurrock Regeneration Ltd and Thurrock Regeneration Homes Ltd but was told today (Friday, 7 June): “We have no further comment to make.”

Thurrock Regeneration Limited has been the driving force behind the Belmont Road site, a controversial development that has been something of an embarrassment to council leader Cllr Rob Gledhill who last week announced the authority would be reviewing its plans for the site in the wake of many complaints from campaigning residents who had pointed out that Thurrock Regeneration’s plans were in breach of many of the council’s own guidelines.

Cllr Gledhill appeared to be trying to distance his administration from Thurrock Regeneration Ltd’s decision-making.

Thurrock Independent editor Neil Speight, who has been liaising with residents during the campaign, said: “The council has information about its private housing and development business on-line (https://www.thurrock.gov.uk/thurrock-regeneration-housing/new-high-quality-housing) but there is little depth about what it really does and when you try to drill down into council agendas and minutes there is very little there either. Democratically-elected councillors certainly don’t seem part of the equation.

“Belmont Road has been a classic example of a council blundering on without any accountability and treating its residents with contempt – for example officers telling residents they can’t ask questions of councillors – and it took pressure from the media and staunch campaigning by some determined local people to put a stop to what was clearly a series of mistakes.

“This whole affair is a complete shambles and a classic example of officers running roughshod over democracy and public accountability.”

He had put that last statement to the council as part of our questions about Thurrock Regeneration Ltd and the council responded by saying: “We consider your comments made about council officers in your enquiry to be inappropriate and unfounded.”

The council’s credibility for future development plan has been under scrutiny for some time. Last year borough MP Jackie Doyle-Price publicly slammed council officers for their ‘staggering ineptitude’ over the Purfleet regeneration project.

The Purfleet project which includes swathes of land owned and managed by Thurrock Council, is being managed by another limited company to which the council has handed power, Purfleet Centre Regeneration Limited (PCRL), which is based in Billericay and has no representation, officer or councillor, from Thurrock.