The subject of the £3.3 million debt owed to Thanet District Council featured on last night's BBC Southeast news and of course several local weblogs with of course, the now compulsory ;'Green' Cllr Ian Driver, popping-up on his soap-box to give his opinion, rather than asking anyone with credibility or a command of the facts.By any measure, it's a huge amount of money and there will be an extraordinary meeting of the Council's Cabinet, next week to discuss the debt.
As ever, wild speculation abounds across the blogs, much like the rumours of my impending arrest with other councillors and officers being pedalled after the Sandy Ezekiel trial. I am worried that some people are starting to believe the mischievous story, that the Council 'Gifted' TransEuropa £3 million pounds of taxpayers money, as opposed to the ferry operator running-up an enormous debt for its use of the Port of Ramsgate.
Let me try and place this story in its proper context, rather than debate the matter on the weblogs. There, it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a contribution, thanks to the usual suspects, with conspiracy theories or simply malicious 'trolls' who have their own agenda. This kind of behaviour simply means that local politicians are reluctant to engage in debate over the internet and for good reason too.
As I recollect, TransEuropa started to struggle at least three years ago, around March 2011. The Council, which also has a commercial responsibility for the Port of Ramsgate, wanted to quite sensibly do everything it could to help the operator through a difficult period, as did the Port of Ostend, which I believe, waived its berthing fees and other creditors, such as the fuel company which was vital to the operation. The cross Channel ferry trade is a fiercely competitive and commercially sensitive business and so the matter was treated with the discretion it required.
Once again, working from memory and I'm sure the exact figure and detail will be revealed next week, when the Conservatives lost control of the Council, the debt was large. Big enough to cause an atmosphere of concern but not large enough to provoke real budgetary alarm, as it is today. From what I remember, an adjusted repayment schedule was put in place while TransEuropa identified the new source of finance it appeared confident in pursuing at the time.
Since then of course, the paper debt to TDC has ballooned to over £3 million and that is more than enough to cause alarm, despondency and some despair. This was a source of much-needed income that was accounted for and that we now appear very unlikely to receive unless, it's a few pence in the pound from the administrators.
The question we should ask today, is really no different than the dilemma I faced then. At what point in the last 18 months, did the present Labour administration and Council officers, realise that the debt was growing beyond the point of no return? Was that passing £1 million, £2 million or even £3 million? Cllr John Worrow (Ind) is Chair of the Finance and Audit committee. I wonder if he knows as one might think it should have appeared in the last year's accounts?
Why wasn't this information bought to Members attention earlier In fact, it looks as if the very opposite has taken place, as I found out at the same time as my readers did.
There is of course another very important question which comes from the story and that is whether a local Council should be involved in commercial activities of this size. The evidence suggests probably not but I suspect this will prove the focus of a fierce debate next week.