It feels a little redundant to describe the Shoebury sea wall debate as the defining issue of the last local elections in Southend — at least in the ward where I was the Labour candidate, West Shoebury.
At the time I was, I feel, more moderate than my opponents on the matter. Whilst UKIP’s James Moyies (who went on to win) damned the council’s preferred scheme as wrong and unworkable, and Conservative then-Cllr Tony Cox backed it to his last electoral gasp, I took the middle way.
I said, whenever asked, that the decision should be reviewed. That the process should be scrutinised. That the choices should be looked at afresh. But given that sea defences are vital — and I still believe that — I could not, I felt, dismiss the then-administration’s preferred plan, given that it was the most cost effective.
That, however, has now been brought into question. In the review initiated by the new joint administration, the preferred scheme has been found not to be the cheapest, but indeed the second most expensive.
I am, to be honest, furious. I took a lot of flack from both sides for my position. But given the austere financial situation in local government — and I remind readers that the Conservative-led government have cut £11m from Southend for 2015/16 alone — meant that cost had to be a serious factor.
At the Place Scrutiny Committee meeting on Monday the report from the review of the sea defences was discussed. And my friend Julian Ware-Lane noticed that the numbers didn’t add up. I wasn’t there, but the Echo reckon that he “angrily claimed that he was misled about the cost“.
The numbers, according to Julian, put the preferred scheme at a lifetime cost of £34.4m. This is cheaper than the Friends of Shoebury Common alternative (£35.5m, for the interested), but more expensive than the five other schemes considered. The cheapest is the Burgess Estate Resident’s Association option, which when the plans were discussed under the last administration was the most expensive.
On his own blog, Julian says:
“I am either very stupid when it comes to basic arithmetic, or I have been misled, misinformed, or plain lied to. And not just me. This applies to all fifty-one councillors who sat in the chamber last year.
“This is no trivial affair. We could have spent over £34million based on duff information; £34million of tax-payers money.
“We all know that the last, Conservative, administration liked to fritter money on useless vanity projects, and this looks another to add to an already long list.“
This is potentially very serious. If these numbers are accurate, then they differ wildly from what was publicly claimed to be the case by council officers and cabinet members. And £34 million is an astronomic amount of local taxpayers’ money — more than three times the £11m of Tory cuts to Southend which have necessitated the council tax and fee rises about which the local Tories are getting so upset. It is an astronomic amount of my money, and of yours.
I feel decidedly misled, and I strongly doubt that I am the only one.
Neither Nigel Holdcroft, the leader of the council at the time, nor Tony Cox, are on the council any longer, so they cannot be challenged or held to account in the chamber. But if these numbers are wrong, and whether it was down to an error by either the officers or the politicians, or — dare I say it? — a deliberate attempt to mislead the voting residents of Southend, if anyone is to have faith in system then this needs to be investigated, and we deserve answers.
UPDATE: In a long and no doubt fascinating post responding to myself and Julian, Tony Cox points out one definite mistake I’ve made: he was not, in fact, the portfolio holder. That particular honour belonged to John Lamb. John Lamb who is still a Southend Borough Councillor. John Lamb who is now leader of the Conservative Group on Southend Borough Council.