Fisher’s “black hole” of debt could see 500 job cuts at council

One hundred days in, and the honeymoon could be over for Croydon’s Labour council, as confronted with a £92.8 million “funding gap” over the next four years, they face having to cut up to 500 jobs at the local authority.

Fisher's Folly: council HQ built for £140m, plus £80m borrowing. Some council staff will pay with their jobs

Fisher’s Folly: council HQ built for £140m, plus £80m borrowing. Some council staff will pay with their jobs

Immediately after Labour won the local election in May, Mike Fisher, then the outgoing leader of the council, now the ex-leader of Croydon Tories, seemed to try to taunt his political rivals by boasting that his administration had left behind a “black hole” of debt.

With further reductions in funding to come from the Conservative-led central Government, that presents Croydon Council with some painful arithmetic.

The funding gap and job cut figures were discussed at Tuesday night’s scrutiny meeting, in which item 7 considered the Budget process. The new chairman of the committee, Labour’s Sean Fitzsimons, dismissed some of the dozen “key elements” and themes offered in the report by saying, “David Brent could have done better than that.”

It is not certain exactly who Fitzsimons may have had in mind as Croydon Council’s “David Brent” figure.

Council CEO David Brent: any resemblance to Nathan Elvery is entirely coincidental

Croydon Council’s £180,000 per year CEO David Brent: any resemblance to Nathan Elvery is entirely coincidental

Croydon Council has cut more than 400 jobs in the past four years, making savings of £98.8 million. Having already cut so deep into the organisation in the interests of the Tory-led government’s “austerity” agenda, there is understandable fears that there are no “easy” cut-backs left to make. And Labour councils applying Tory cuts have frequently led to bitter political fall-outs.

The report was submitted by the council’s director of finance and assets, Richard Simpson. One of the Tories on the committee, Councillor Jason Cummings, asked whether the figures could mean 500 jobs being cut in the next round.

“That is not a bad estimate,” was Simpson’s doom-ladened response.

The mood of staff throughout the council after four years of austerity is very low, according to Simpson, who said that it is difficult for morale to improve “when you think you’ve got to look for another job”. Clearly, the move into the £140 million Fisher’s Folly council HQ building has done little to cheer the few staff who remain on the council pay-roll.

Questions were asked about the amount of the council’s revenue budget that is having to be used to service the debts built up under Fisher’s Conservative Council. According to officials, in 2005-2006 – when Labour was last in control of the Town Hall – 3 per cent of council revenue was committed to paying off debt. Today, that figure is closer to 15 per cent, with £36 million being used to pay down debts accrued, such as the £80 million borrowings on Fisher’s Folly.

Councillor Sean Fitzsimons: not a fan of jargon-riddled reports

Sean Fitzsimons: not a fan of jargon-riddled reports

Labour councillors have some suggestions to improve the council’s finances. Councillor Simon Hall, the cabinet member for finance, told the meeting that he is “desperately hoping” that Roehampton University will take floor space in the benighted Bernard Weatherill House (as it is also sometimes known), bringing higher education to the borough and some much-needed rental income to the council.

Many of the council’s contracts are to be revisited, with the intention of bringing back in-house services which have previously been outsourced, often to varying effect but rarely delivering true value for the Council Tax-payers’ money. Smaller bids for council contracts will be encouraged, to encourage more companies based within the borough to benefit from doing business with the council.

In the chair, Fitzsimons was scathing of the 12 “themes” which were offered by the officials’ report, David Brent-style, as key elements of the council programme.

These included the likes of…

  • “Digital by Design – This will apply agile digital solutions to help reduce the cost and way in which we do business, transforming both the customer experience and our internal services so we are fit for the digital age”
  • “Eyes and Ears – this will maximise the impact of our visible presence, with multi-skilled teams focused on the entire Challenge not single silos”; and
  • “Asset Management – this will focus on creating a platform for growth through the key levers of skills, infrastructure, investment and innovation to accelerate delivery of jobs and homes for our residents, as well as looking to sweat our assets”

“It’s so much jargon and cliches,” Fitzsimons said, dismissively.

If cutting the crap is one of the first cuts Labour makes, maybe some things are changing for the better at the Town Hall.

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4 Responses to Fisher’s “black hole” of debt could see 500 job cuts at council

  1. “Agile digital solutions, multi-skilled teams focused on the entire Challenge not single silos, looking to sweat our assets”

    Apart from from being a wonderful compendium of weirdly mixed metaphors worthy of publication in its own right, what on earth does any of this really mean, if anything at all? The next step surely, to help us in confused and helpless electorate, is for the council to publish a little leaflet: A Guide to the Meaningless Jargon We Use (in order to disguise the fact that we don’t really have any idea of what we are doing): a suitable job for David Brent, methinks.

  2. east1956 says:

    Can someone in the Labour Party provide an explanation of how the Conservative administration and the highly paid professional local authority managers got Croydon into this mess?

    It seems to me that for at least a decade Croydon has stumbled from one financial crisis to another.
    The Conservative administration is gone, it is time for the other parties to this catastrophe to go too (and not with enhanced redundancy packages but simple dismissals for incompetence).

  3. east1956 says:

    A suggestion to the Labour Party following on from Cllr Fitzsimons dislike of jargon that hides meaning and thus truth.

    Provide a detailed explanation of how and why Croydon is in such a financial mess, and keep plugging that for the next decade. If there is a need for an inquiry, then make it as public as possible, including naming every councillor and officer who was involved.

    If you don’t, come the next election the Tories will be blaming you for the continuing financial problems.

  4. davidcallam says:

    By the next meeting if the council pleases: a workable plan written in plain English that can be readily understood by any of us who pay the bills.
    Also a full list of council contract executives with a description of what they do and a list of who else within the council could do the same jobs more costs effectively.

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