STEVEN DOWNES on how Croydon Council’s new political leadership kept a key item off the notification of the meeting to appoint the £180,000 CEO
“Who governs Britain?” was a headline beloved of right-leaning newspapers in the 1970s when questioning the influence of the trades unions over the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan.
Pose a similar question, locally, today – Who governs Croydon? – and the implication is clear: not the new council leader Tony Newman and the Labour group which was recently elected to take charge of the Town Hall. Because Nathan Elvery and his cadre of very well-paid council executive staff who inhabit the glass palace on Cost A Mint Walk seem to have a very firm grip on the real power on the council.
Extraordinarily, in the opinion of some of the distressed council staff who have contacted Inside Croydon since the news was announced, tonight at the full meeting of the council, Elvery is to be anointed as Croydon Council’s new chief executive officer.
“It’s the first time for six years that anyone at Croydon Council has managed to cling on to their job without having to re-apply for it,” one source within the council said, adding that Elvery has been “the one with his hand on the lever of the employment trap-door for hundreds of council employees”.
The attendance of such a senior executive as Elvery at outgoing council employees’ Employment Tribunals, when they have contested their forced redundancies or alleged bullying or unfair dismissal at the council, has seen him regarded among many remaining staff as Croydon’s answer to Robespierre.
Newman announced the confirmation of Elvery’s position two weeks ago to the Croydon Sadvertiser. “It is testament to Nathan’s talents and ability that both political sides of the council unanimously backed this appointment, recognising the excellent job he has been doing over these past 15 months,” Newman gushed. There is a suggestion that when it appeared on the local rag’s website, the decision came as news to some members of Newman’s own cabinet.
This is hardly surprising. When the agenda for the Appointments Committee meeting on July 1 was published, the job of the chief executive officer was nowhere to be seen, not even listed under the Part B of the agenda which would be discussed in secret. The epitome of a hidden agenda, you might think.
There is some suspicion that conducting council business in such an under-hand and secretive manner may even be illegal.
Newman was quoted as saying (though the quote may well have been drafted on Elvery’s executive laptop) that his new CEO “… supports the interests of Croydon, sharing our ambition to make this council more open and transparent”. Seriously.
Council employees do not seem to hold Elvery in a similarly high regard. “I was so upset when they appointed Elvery and it just means the council won’t change and he won’t get rid of the consultants,” one said.
“Tony Newman must have known months ago he was going to give Elvery the job. We can speculate as to why, but I suspect we will never know.”
Another said, “It’s a fucking joke. After all that he has done to the staff at the council, with morale on the floor. I am so angry. They,” meaning Labour, “must be completely stupid.”
Another council employee told Inside Croydon: “It’s a shame that the new administration seem to being hoodwinked by senior officers, I was not even aware that the position had been advertised in the broadsheets,” they said [The Editor writes: That’s because they never did]. “Then again, nothing would surprise me with the council.”
Elvery has been doing the CEO job on an interim basis since March 2013, when the man who appointed him, initially as finance director, Jon Rouse, quit the council in a move that has never been fully explained. Rouse, who as CEO was behind the CCURV urban regeneration vehicle with developers John Laing that has turned council property into mountains of debt, opted to take another post in the NHS, and a cut in salary of more than £100,000 per year from what he’d been raking in at Croydon.
Elvery is widely derided by council insiders as a David Brent-like figure, with his management-by-PowerPoint style, his doggerel poetry writing and a facility for making trite statements such as, “Efficiency is in our DNA”.
With no real front-line experience in local government work – characterised in one recent commentary piece as a “parade-ground general” – Elvery has been at Croydon Council for more than a decade, and he has surrounded himself at executive level with other, like-minded back-office operators who managed to wield considerable influence over the running of the borough under the Tories. They clearly have no intention of allowing local Labour politicians to get in their way now.
Elvery was given the CEO’s job with unanimous and bipartisan support on the council’s Appointments Committee. Keeping Elvery in position may suit the local Conservatives, since to some extent it should help to cover-up the culture of secrecy, self-serving and blundering which existed on their eight-year watch. Elvery knows where all the bodies are buried, metaphorically at least.
Labour councillors are already spinning that Elvery’s appointment is being done as a cost-cutting measure. Hannah Miller, the council’s executive director for adult services, health and housing, who might have applied for the top job, has somehow been persuaded to take redundancy. Miller’s important position is now to be combined into the role of the CEO, who will also perform the duties of the executive director for corporate resources and customer services.
“It’s for continuity,” one Labour source said. “The changes we’ve made so far have only been possible because the CEO has supported them internally and made them work.” That’s nice of Elvery, when the job of the council’s most senior official is supposed to implement the policies of the elected representatives.
It had been anticipated that the prestigious job of Croydon Council chief executive officer might have been advertised publicly, and perhaps a firm of headhunters appointed – as Elvery has often done in the past when choosing members of the council’s “team”, at considerable expense to the Council Tax-payers. In which case, Elvery would have been invited to apply and the best applicant might have been announced some time in the autumn.
But Elvery, together his colleague Julie Belvir, the Borough Solicitor, have managed to persuade the Labour leadership to skip that bit. The report to tonights’s council meeting can be seen by clicking here and downloading the pdf for Item 11.
“We couldn’t afford drift over the summer,” our Labour source says. “This way we really will deliver in 100 days.
“He’s never had a strong political leadership team. He does now,” they added.
Elvery has agreed to a £180,000 salary – more than £60,000 a year less than was paid to Rouse – with no extras and no pay rises for two years. By getting rid of two executive director roles, the council will save £187,000 this financial year, and £374,000 a year from April 2015.
Labour believes that in Elvery as CEO, they are getting three jobs done for the price of one. They have not put to the test whether he is actually capable of doing one job properly, and fairly.
Inside Croydon exposed how Elvery acted in clear breach of his employment contract when deputy CEO by touting his “consultancy services” to other local authorities through a private company, Sundragon Associates. No one at Croydon, which under Elvery apparently has “ambition to make this council more open and transparent”, has been willing to reveal whether the then deputy CEO was ever given permission to moonlight from his council job, nor whether any disciplinary action was taken over the breach of contract.
Elvery’s performance in other areas, too, has been less than stellar. On May 22, Elvery, by virtue of being CEO, served as the returning officer at the local elections, the conduct of which was generally regarded as poor. Questions were raised about staging the count in the hall of a private school rather than in one of the council’s own buildings, and the inadequate number and poor training of the tellers, which saw a count which ought to have been completed by 3am dragging on until mid-morning on May 23.
The interim CEO’s conduct before the election was clearly biased towards the incumbent Tories, as time and again during the purdah period, Elvery issued press releases and statements which were obvious direct lifts from Conservative campaign materials.
And the council continues casually to break the law over Freedom of Information requests, apparently to prevent information about Elvery and other executive directors from reaching the public – the people who pay their wages. One Croydon resident filed a series of FoIs to the council in early May regarding key appointments. The council, under law, has 20 working days in which to reply. It has still yet to do so.
Croydon with “…more open and transparent…” council governance under Elvery as CEO? It doesn’t look that way.
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- Council CEO Elvery makes political statements during purdah
Coming to Croydon
- South Norwood Arts Festival, July 5-20
- Conan Doyle talks, South Norwood Library, July 16
- David Lean Cinema: Half of a Yellow Sun, July 17
- Love Norbury launch event, July 19
- Boom Band plays the Half Moon Putney, July 19
- Summer butterfly walk, Farthing Down, July 20
- Picnic in Grangewood Park, July 20
- David Lean Cinema: Pantani: Accidental Death of a Cyclist, July 21
- David Lean Cinema: Tracks, July 24
- Fragile, Spread Eagle Theatre, July 24-26
- CODA’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wandle Park, Jul 30-Aug 2
- David Lean Cinema: Locke, July 31
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Warlingham rugby dinner with international Richard Hill, Sep 12
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Streatham Common 6M race, Sep 27
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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