Green Party Councillor, Ian Driver, is calling for an independent public enquiry into an “unrecoverable” debt of £3.4 million owed to Thanet Council by TransEuropa Ferries.The debt, which is almost 20% of Thanet Council’s annual budget, results from a secret fees and charges deferral arrangement between the Council and TransEuropa Ferries, which came to light in April of this year when the ferry company went bust owing more than £20 million to Ostend and Ramsgate ports, fuel supplier Oil Chart International, and several other creditors.
Earlier this week it was revealed in letter from the Information Commissioner, who is adjudicating on Driver’s request to see all of the secret documents relating to TransEuropa deal, that Thanet Council “will not be pursuing legal action to recover the outstanding debt”.Said Driver “this astronomic loss of public money will ultimately have to be paid for by the people of Thanet through cuts in services and perhaps even Council Tax increases”.
Driver places the blame for the £3.4 loss on the shoulders of senior officers and the Council’s political leadership. He said “From what I have found out the arrangements with TransEuropa appear to have been appallingly mismanaged by senior officers. There was no formal legal agreement with TransEuropa covering the payment deferral; there were no regular reviews or risk assessments of the arrangement; TransEuropa’s claims about new investors were not properly investigated and the Council failed to seek security on the growing debt mountain which meant that it has been unable to share in the proceeds of the creditor-forced-sale of the Gardenia and Larkspur ferries which is estimated to raise euros £1.5 million”.“Worse still, the deal with TransEuropa was a closely guarded secret restricted to a small group of senior council officers and political bosses including ex-Tory Leader of the Council Bob Bayford, the current Labour Leader Clive Hart and Cabinet finance chief Councillor Rick Everitt. This secrecy meant that other elected councillors were prevented from scrutinizing and asking questions about the deal. This was an extremely serious subversion of democratic accountability.”
“This appalling mismanagement and secrecy goes right to the top of Thanet Council. No amount of internal reviews or working groups will get to the bottom of what went wrong, because powerful people will be desperately trying to cover their backsides. What we need is an independent public enquiry into how the Council lost £3.4 million of taxpayer’s money. This enquiry should name and shame those responsible and hopefully they will do they honourable thing and resign”Driver, who has been fighting for the release of secret documents about the TransEuropa deal, for 6 months has been advised by the Information Commissioner that they will be made available to him in December. The Council’s Auditor, who is investigating complaints submitted by Driver about the TransEuropa fee deferral agreement, has also said that he will be reporting back his findings in December. Two days ago Driver was prevented from filming and broadcasting a meeting of a Thanet Council internal review group looking into the TransEuropa debt because of what he claims is a “growing paranoia about public exposure of the secrecy and mismanagement surrounding this sordid affair”.
One of the senior council officers involved in the TransEuropa affair, Head of Regulatory Services Harvey Patterson, is widely rumoured to be leaving Thanet Council in the New Year with what several commentators have said might be a so-called gagging deal which , if true, would prevent him from speaking about his role in setting up and supervising the TransEuropa arrangements. Said Driver, “I sincerely hope this rumour is untrue. It would be highly inappropriate for the Council’s Chief Executive to allow public money to be used to silence a key player in the TransEuropa scandal, especially if there were to be a independent enquiry”.