BELLA BARTOCK, our arts correspondent, discovers that splitting the time of a Brighton council executive is raising questions at both ends of the A23
The council’s new executive in charge of culture, Paula Murray, will be paid £39,000 for her six months in Croydon – while still carrying out work for her employers in Brighton.
Murray officially starts work as Croydon’s first creative director on April 1, on a six-month secondment from Brighton and Hove City Council, where she is deputy chief executive on a £78,000 annual salary.
Croydon Council announced Murray’s appointment earlier this month, around the same time it was securing an agreement to shut down the borough’s cultural hub, the Fairfield Halls, for two years and while the council is in the midst of a staff redundancy process.
Reports in Brighton suggest that Murray’s salary will be invoiced to Fisher’s Folly, the Croydon council HQ, on a monthly basis during her sojourn in south London.
But when opposition politicians and union officials on the south coast raised serious questions about how Murray will be managing her time through 2016, it emerged that their senior council official will continue to have important input on the running of Brighton’s libraries, the world-famous Royal Pavilion and the Brighton Centre over the coming months.
Like Croydon, Brighton is having to implement wide-ranging budget cuts, both to staff and to its cultural offer.
Undaunted, Murray’s boss in Brighton said, “We will be able to call on her expertise.”
Geoff Raw, the Brighton and Hove council chief executive, described the secondment as “a great opportunity for Paula”. Raw also spoke of the potential for further collaborations within the Coast to Capital enterprise corridor which runs from south London to the Channel.
And Murray confirmed that she will not be giving Croydon her undivided attention during her secondment. She said: “I’m delighted that I’ll be able to keep the leadership role on the important cultural projects.”
This has managed to create an odd couple, with both the trades unions and Conservative Party expressing doubts over the arrangement.
“We never had a deputy chief executive before, so we have questioned before why we need one now,” said Mary Mears, a Brighton Tory councillor. “I do find it very odd.”
Richard Woolven, the secretary of the Brighton branch of the public service union Unison, said: “The timing of this is really odd, to do it for six months, given the big changes that are about to take place in the areas she manages.”
Other trades unionists in Brighton said that they were “absolutely amazed” by the secondment of such a senior member of their council staff. “Someone has called this one very wrong,” the GMB’s Mark Turner said.
The timing is not only odd from a Brighton perspective.
Murray’s six months in Croydon runs out at the end of September, just after the second Ambition Festival is due to be held at Boxpark, the bars and restaurant development next to East Croydon Station (and so handy for the last train to Brighton…).
Lasting just one weekend, the 2016 Ambition Festival is shorter than the first edition staged last year, and is happening three months later than in 2015, because of delays in getting Boxpark Croydon ready to open. It means that whatever Murray manages to achieve in her short spell in Croydon, she is unlikely to have an opportunity to oversee a thorough cost-benefit review of the Ambition Festival, nor offer a view on whether the £160,000 of council money which is being spent on the arts events represents value for Council Tax-payers, or just a further juicy subsidy to promote Boozepark’s private business.
Certainly, it appears that Boxpark will be in control of events staged for the Ambition Festival at its venue: Boxpark was last week advertising for an events manager on £35,000 per year.
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