Thurrock Council and the Financialisation of Local Government

In the 1980s Thurrock was a hotbed of left-wing activity, "an island of red in a sea of blue." Today its council is pioneering in other directions – by replacing funding cuts with vast speculative investments.

In May, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Financial Times released the findings of their investigation into the scale of financial speculation taking place at the Conservative controlled council in Thurrock, Essex. The council’s huge speculative investments are funded by a rapid succession of short-term loans, totalling more than £1 billion, from 150 local authorities.

Much of the details of the council’s investments have been held back in the name of ‘commercial sensitivity’ — but what is strikingly clear is that their debt dwarfs their annual budget of £220 million, and accounts for 10% of all short term borrowing between local authorities across the UK. If the council’s investments don’t pay out, it will likely be left unable to service these phenomenal debts.

Around £604 million of the cash Thurrock Council has borrowed is being funnelled into privately owned solar farms hundreds of miles away, some of which are being investigated for suspected faults. In a recent newsletter, Thurrock Council claimed that residents should have confidence in its investment strategy, because energy is a ‘commodity’ needed in or out of a crisis.

These investments were not chosen with the intention of aiding rapid decarbonisation, but instead for their exchange value as commodities. Thurrock Council, in its capacity as a democratically elected local authority, is engaging in the kind of ‘green capitalism’ that will do next to nothing to save the planet from extinction.

Economic Malaise

The financialisation of local government in Thurrock has taken place against a backdrop of decades of economic degradation. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss its investment strategy as an isolated ‘scandal’.

Reforms to local government in 2004 made it easier for councils to borrow such vast sums, but the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy claims that investment strategies like Thurrock’s could leave Councils dangerously dependent on commercial income, or unable to pay their debts.

As a result of successive budget cuts, it is predicted that local authorities will face an £8 billion funding gap by 2025. In what is widely seen as a low-risk way to boost anaemic budgets, 217 of 412 local authorities (both Labour and Conservative) report lending money to other councils, and several have invested in the very same solar farms as Thurrock.

It doesn’t seem, however, that Thurrock Council’s ‘innovative investment strategy’ is intended to meaningfully repair the damage done to services by these cuts. Members of the Conservative cabinet have made the rationale behind their investment strategy plain.

In a newsletter emailed to Thurrock residents on 22nd May, Cllr. Shane Hebb, cabinet member for finance, argued that the Council’s investments will allow it to ‘weather the coronavirus financial storm’ far better than other local authorities. However, in the next breath, he reiterated that the council will need to become even ‘leaner’, and continue its policy of ‘Fewer Buildings, Better Services’ — a slogan which seems to imply the privatisation of public buildings in the name of cost-saving.

Even if the council did want to reverse cuts made to services, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that a report the council published itself predicts a net loss on its investments by 2023, due to both rising interest and other repayment costs. 

In a statement to the BiJ, Thurrock Council claimed that their investment strategy had allowed them to put £1million towards new police officers and £670,000 towards tackling ‘anti-social behaviour’. These investments are therefore at least partially being used to finance the continued expansion of a carceral state that — as we have been viscerally reminded in recent weeks — disproportionately targets black people.

It is perhaps no coincidence that between 2001 and 2011, the number of black people living in Thurrock increased from 1.2% of the borough’s population, to 7.8%, and in 2015 UKIP were accused of ‘playing the race’ card to court white voters in the constituency.

The expansion of Thurrock’s police force is a goal held in common by both Conservative and Labour parties locally. Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Thurrock in the 2019 general election explicitly stated the need for ‘more police on our streets’, a commitment to ‘law and order’ the Corbyn project failed to shake loose

The funding allotted to policing by the Conservative council surpasses the £500,000 being invested in local mental health services, and although they have claimed that some of the money accrued from investments is being used for social care, no exact figure was provided.

While a lack of democratic oversight obscures the finer details, the information the Council has revealed about its investments appears to focus almost exclusively on providing more funding to the racist institution of the police.

Dormitory Suburb

Analysis of Thurrock’s dubious financial decisions has primarily focused on whether its investments are fiscally sound, but little attention has been paid to the borough’s specific political and economic conditions. Though the Financial Times has dismissed Thurrock as a ‘boring dormitory suburb’, an examination of its historical development provides an insight into the context in which such risky financial decisions are being made.

Thurrock has historically been a relatively industrialised area of the South East. In Grays, for example, the production of lime, brick, coke, and whiting from chalk quarries once dominated the local economy — and the decline of these industries since the 1970s has left huge, literal holes in the landscape. Docks, power stations, and factories could be found throughout the rest of the borough and along its estuarial coast line. The BATA shoe factory, for example, opened in East Tilbury in the 1930s, which quickly came to resemble the worker towns the company had set up across the Czech Republic.

Between 1981 and 1984, the borough saw widespread strike action from teachers, railway workers, oil refinery workers, ambulance drivers, and white-collar Council employees. In 1983, Tilbury Docks were brought to a standstill for three months when over 2,000 dockers went on strike, part of a history of militancy at the docks which stretches back into the 19th century. During the 1984 Miners’ Strike, flying pickets from Kent could be found at Shell Oil Refinery in Coryton, and the power station at Tilbury. 

This industrial unrest, in conjunction with a Labour council and MP for much of the 1980s, led the Thurrock Gazette to describe the borough as an ‘island of red in a sea of blue’ in 1983. 

An Island of Red

Harvey Proctor, Conservative MP and Monday Club member, represented the neighbouring constituencies of Basildon and  Billericay respectively during the 1980s. The far-right New Britain Party made numerous attempts to garner support in Thurrock, putting candidates up for local elections and holding rallies in the borough.

In 1983, Jeremy Corbyn made an appearance in Thurrock to attend a discussion on Irish Republicanism at the Crooked Billet Pub in Stanford-le-Hope; the event was derailed by National Front members, who reportedly turned up wielding police style truncheons. 

Local left-wing activists, most notably Reverse Order Action Group (ROAG), campaigned hard against a Labour MP and local council that it saw as traitorous to working class residents, as well as against the nascent fascism represented by the New Britain Party. ROAG was ‘a group of feminists, anarchists, socialists and communists [who all agreed] on the need to change society to the benefit of the people [but disagreed] on the ways and means.’

Operating primarily between 1981 and 1983, the group produced a magazine considered so scandalous it was kept securely behind the counter at Grays library — along with Gay News. The group campaigned on a whole range of local and global issues, including, but not limited to unemployment, homelessness, racism, women’s liberation, and imperialism.  

During the 1980s ROAG campaigned against the enhancement of police powers —particularly stop and search — under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act. In the pages of its magazine, ROAG called on the people of Thurrock to help ‘Kill the Police Bill!’, which would disproportionately target young black men.

This campaign was part of its broader opposition to the institution of policing in general, for ‘the police force is a political force acting in the interests of the state and the ruling class’. When the Labour Mayor welcomed the far-right New Britain Party to the borough for a conference, ROAG forced the Labour council to apologise to black residents and condemn the party for its racist views. 

Deprivation to Financialisation

The borough’s unemployment rate was at 15.5% in 1983, higher than the 12.6% average for the county of Essex. The Unemployed Members of Reverse Order Collective pushed back against the economism of local unions, encouraging members to use their new-found unemployment as an opportunity to reflect on the inherently exploitative nature of wage labour: ‘The right to work is the right to be used – to be employed is to be abused!’

As the council’s housing waiting list grew steadily longer, ROAG published a survey of empty council houses in Grays for people to squat in. Far from being a ‘boring dormitory suburb’, then, in the 1980s Thurrock was a hotbed for labour militancy and political radicalism, as residents organised themselves in resistance to both tepid social democracy, and an insurgent fascism.

Since the 1980s, deindustrialisation and decades of austerity have hit hard in Thurrock. The borough’s dominant industries have disappeared, declined, or been privatised. In some Thurrock wards, more than 40% of children are living in poverty. The borough has a long history of being the capital’s dumping ground, both literally — there are numerous historic and active waste tips in Thurrock filled with London’s waste — and metaphorically, with London councils offloading their homeless populations to the borough in recent years.

As its industries collapsed, London’s parasitic relationship with the borough has only intensified. The entangled processes of deindustrialisation, financialisation, and automation mean that employment within the borough is dominated by precarious, heavily surveilled work.

In 2017, Amazon opened a ‘fulfillment centre’ on ‘Windrush Road’ in Tilbury, eponymously named after the ship that docked there in 1948, carrying Caribbean migrants that have since been heinously mistreated by the British government for decades. As a result, much of Thurrock’s population travels to the capital for work everyday, bodies ceaselessly flowing towards the financial centre of gravity on the c2c train line. 

In 2015, Thurrock was one of the Essex seats UKIP funnelled huge campaign resources into, and in the 2019 general election, the Tories turned a marginal seat held on a knife edge into a majority of over 11,000 votes. The widespread alienation I experienced growing up in Thurrock during the 2000s has been effectively levered into support for the ruling classes.

Bleak Road

Though the Labour-led council was rightly criticised by ROAG in the 1980s, the ‘Island of Red’ was a far cry from the present council’s apparent determination to turn itself into a hollowed-out investment broker.

In 1982, the Labour council joined twenty other ‘rebel’ local authorities in declaring itself a ‘nuclear free zone’, and the strength of the organised labour movement in the borough can only be dreamed of today. Thurrock Council employees expected to carry on working during the current pandemic have expressed frustration that their fears about safety were not taken seriously.  

Thurrock might seem ‘boring’ because it has had its social fabric torn apart for decades. Where it was once home to militant unionism and a network of anti-capitalist activist groups, the tendrils of global capital — from Amazon to the DP World mega-port — have run rough-shod over the borough.

The horizons of possibility for local government are hamstrung by the centre, and even ‘radical’ Labour councils face serious limitations. In the case of the Conservative-controlled Thurrock Council — whether its phenomenal financial gamble pays off or not — it will likely remain ideologically wedded to making itself as ‘lean’ as possible.

That approach offers little to combat the economic and social decimation its residents have faced for decades.