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Thurrock Council Comes Up with a New Type of Bad Buying

Having spent several years researching, writing and now promoting the Bad Buying book, I thought I’d heard pretty much everything in terms of public sector organisations finding ways of wasting taxpayers money through incompetent or corrupt procurement, investment and spending.

But there is always something new, and the case of Conservative-run Thurrock Council in Essex and their investments in bonds linked to solar power is unique and astonishing. You can read the full story here – it is great work by Gareth Davies of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, supported on this story by the Daily Mail.

Thurrock has invested in solar farm businesses owned by an individual called Liam Kavanagh. Now I suspect most procurement professionals are inherently suspicious of people who haven’t been around for long, or whose businesses are only recently established, but who buy multiple fancy cars / fancy homes. In the case of Kavanagh, “his jetset lifestyle included the use of a private jet, a fleet of super-cars and a Hampshire farmhouse with a swimming pool, wine cellar, home cinema and steam and hot tub room”.

As the Mail reported; “Cash-strapped Thurrock Council in Essex borrowed £655million of public money – the equivalent of triple what it spends on services each year – to invest in 53 solar farms across the UK. It agreed a series of deals with globe-trotting businessman Liam Kavanagh, whose integrity was later questioned by a High Court judge over £5million his company banked in ‘commission’.”

And now there appears to be some £130 million of Thurrock’s money that has “disappeared”, with questions over even larger sums owed to the council. Kavanagh has liquidated companies that took money from Thurrock and has re-arranged his financial affairs, leaving the council with concerns over up to £200 million that it is owed. Incredibly, much of the investment was made by borrowing from other local authorities, who could be in trouble if Thurrock then default!

Davies reports this.  “In an interview at the time, Clark (Thurrock’s CFO) described a bizarre arrangement, involving dozens if not hundreds of short-term loans, many as short as a month in length, with the effect that the council was in a perpetual state of borrowing from one local authority to repay another. Piecing together data in obscure spreadsheets revealed Thurrock had borrowed from at least 150 other councils”.  Thurrock also borrowed some £350 million from a Treasury-run lending body.

Local authorities seem to be a hotbed for financial waste, incompetence and fraud. There are many questions still being asked about Croydon’s property “business” – that council went bust and Whitehall had to send in “commissioners” to run it. The same has happened in Slough – dodgy property investment there too.

Nottingham Council decided to get into the energy business and its “Robin Hood Energy” firm stole from the taxpayer to give to … well, tens of millions in losses disappeared anyway. Gloucester tried something similar and failed.  My own local council, Surrey Heath, invested some £120 million in buying commercial property just before the bottom dropped out of that market. The valuation is now more like £50 million.

So the problems cover councils run by Labour (Slough, Liverpool) and the Conservatives (Surrey Heath, Thurrock). It does often seem to be council officials who are the driving force behind reckless investments and spending, while the councillors are not informed or don’t have the intellect or power to intervene. In the case of Thurrock, Davies reported that officials kept elected councillors in the dark for months and have not given full access to the details (as well as blocking FOI requests and questions).

Whilst Davies has to be careful in his reporting – “While there is no suggestion that any rules were breached….” he says, we must wonder whether in some of these examples, corruption was involved, although it is hard to prove. Do external parties (suppliers, property developers etc.) say to their inside-the-council enabler “look, I can’t give you anything now, but in five years’ time when the heat has died down, there’s a million for you”.  

Anyway, if it is not corruption, then we are seeing far too many examples of gross incompetence from our councils. And it is costing taxpayers many, many millions.

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