A DAMNING dossier from an official audit of Castle Point Council has alleged “inappropriate authorisation of payments made by officers” and “deliberate attempts to conceal the actions being taken” amid historic serious concerns about the culture at the authority.

The council’s audit committee considered the report in a behind closed doors meeting on July 24 last year, outlining a list of damaging concerns about the way the authority had historically been led.

The secret July 24 report – seen by the Echo – contained the findings of an audit, carried out between January and May 2022, alleges serious workplace culture issues: 

  • Performance payments paid to individuals without clear setting of objectives, or evidence of assessment to demonstrate performance has been satisfactory and whether payments are due.
  • Unequal and preferential treatment of senior managers via their pay and conditions, compared to other staff within the organisation, including granting of flexible retirement and associated schemes 
  • Inappropriate authorisation of payments made by officers and deliberate attempts to conceal the actions being taken in some cases  
  • Senior managers using their position within the authority to change and develop policies that they will benefit from without appropriate processes

The Echo has repeatedly put the concerns to Castle Point Council, but a spokesman refused any request for comment and added a report was being prepared for consideration by councillors.

However, it is clear that new chief executive, Angela Hutchings, appointed in May 2022, has worked tirelessly to change the culture of the council.

Castle Point Conservative MP Rebecca Harris outlined her concern over the July 24 report, only circulated to councillors, saying if the information is accurate, it “strikes at the heart of local democracy”.

She said: “If unelected officials have been making decisions with taxpayer money about their own pay and conditions, making payments without the proper authorisation of elected councillors, and attempting to conceal what has been going on, then this is incredibly serious.

“The council should publish the details of these investigations and make them public for the sake of local taxpayers, and the hundreds of innocent hard-working council staff who were not involved. They should say what action has been taken against whoever is responsible.”

Asked to comment on the report after it was seen by the Echo, Tory Castle Point county councillor, Andrew Sheldon, who has campaigned to unearth some of the historic issues at the authority, said: “If this is the report that was put before councillors last year it is even more devastating than I thought it would be.

"It proves that my pursuit of this was not a ‘witch hunt’.”

He said he and the former interim chief executive had faced some “resistance” in getting an acknowledgement at the council that there was anything wrong when he pressed the issue.

He added: “That to me was a clear sign we needed to keep going.

"What matters now though is getting justice for local taxpayers.

"The leader of the Independent party coalition that runs the council said in last week’s council meeting that this matter will be treated with transparency.

“The first tests will be if he gives a full account of what his administration did to pursue those responsible from the second the draft internal audit report landed on his desk, if he makes a statement about any investigations made into the actions of those implicated in this report, and crucially he clarifies if they are still employed by the council and if not what the circumstances of their departure were.”

A spokesman for Castle Point Council reaffirmed its stance: “Our draft accounts, including audit findings regarding historical senior manager pay and conditions, are due to be considered by the Audit Committee and a report is being prepared. It would not be appropriate to make any further comment ahead of that report.”


New Chief Executive brings in sweeping changes 


THE boss of Castle Point Council set about a rapid turnaround of the council after her appointment in 2022 including a shake-up of the senior officer team.

Angela Hutchings put in place a turnaround plan after issues emerged.

In particular, there was a lack of single status job evaluation, a process undertaken to get workers on the same pay scale, marking the council as the only in England without it, leading to severe job imbalance and a lack of transparency in how roles are created.

The report to the July 24 meeting said: “Paper-based and inefficient systems and processes which have not kept up with digital advancements and are not customer orientated.

“There is a top-heavy management structure which slowed down decision making, created inefficiency and eroded autonomy from staff and a culture of siloed working with an ‘us and them’ approach to member involvement with a lack of transparency and inadequate levels of member scrutiny.”

In a public report to the council on January 17, “a strong desire to overcome these severe problems” was identified – with a reshuffled senior leadership team soon to be in place and a new programme rolled out to staff, to attempt to improve the workplace culture through support and collaboration.

Warren Gibson, leader of the People’s Independent Party – which leads the council with the Canvey Independents – said: “We strive to ensure transparency in all areas of business.

The audit committee oversees the council’s internal audit programme and ensures recommendations are made and actioned.”