STEVEN DOWNES, the Editor of Inside Croydon, on the unhappy coincidence of the award of an honorary fellowship to the council’s chief executive
RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects, was unable to offer any explanation last week for its decision to award an honorary fellowship to Jo Negrini, the chief executive of Croydon Council. All they were able to provide was the generic explanation that such awards are made “to people who have made a particular contribution to architecture in its broadest sense”.
For her part, Negrini – recently promoted to become the borough’s highest paid public servant, on £185,000 per year – has so far failed to respond to questions about the nature of the honour bestowed upon her, or the reasons behind it.
But nonetheless, Inside Croydon has uncovered a remarkable coincidence. For Ben Derbyshire, who became President-elect of RIBA last month, also happens to be the chairman of architecture firm HTA Design.
And HTA Design just happens to be one of the seven firms of architects who earlier this year, when Negrini was in charge of Croydon’s “Place” department, were contracted as part of a £250million house-building scheme through its private company, Brick by Brick.
HTA Design is noted for its work in the redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, where vast swathes of council housing and publicly owned land have been transferred to private interests. On the similarly “regenerated” Heygate Estate nearby, once home to thousands of working class families on council rents, you can now buy a two-bed flat for a tidy £725,000.
It is this which has prompted the organisation Architects for Social Housing to arrange to make a presentation to Derbyshire when he attends Thursday night’s glitzy £282-per-person bash at RIBA’s Stirling Prize ceremony.
Architects for Social Housing are staging a protest ahead of the awards in Portland Place and are asking their supporters to wear special Ben Derbyshire masks to mark “the inaugural award for the most arrogant, misinformed and dismissive comment by the President-elect of RIBA”.
Architects for Social Housing are particularly fond of a couple of Derbyshire’s bon mots, including…
“In our view it is essential that we are clear about the objective of estate regeneration: is it to improve the lives of those who live on and around existing estates, or is it to make more effective use of public land to help solve the housing crisis by creating additional homes and widening access to home ownership?”
“Whilst many (me included) are concerned that current housing and planning policies do not serve the ambition to create mixed neighbourhoods particularly well, not everyone believes that public money should be used to subsidise families to live in areas they could not otherwise afford to.”
“Well, thank you very much for your point of view. Would you be so kind as to leave now?”
An early candidate for the same award next year might be Croydon Council’s Labour leader Tony Newman.
On Friday, Newman tried to distract from the unexplained awarding of RIBA’s honorary fellowship to the council chief executive by claiming that our report was “a vile personal attack” on Negrini. He tried to accuse Inside Croydon of in some way of bullying the borough’s most senior official.
Newman was swiftly supported by one or two members of his close clique, such as the all-powerful Alison Butler who, as the cabinet member responsible for Croydon’s house-building programme, is also inextricably linked to the responsibility for signing up Derbyshire’s HTA Design and the six other firms. It is worthy of note that Butler is married to Paul Scott, also a Croydon councillor, who just happens to be an architect and a director of RIBA, too.
Here at Inside Croydon, we refute the increasingly desperate Newman’s ham-fisted and ill-judged critique.
If anything, Newman has only served to underline why Inside Croydon exists: to try to keep a check on the elected councillors and the council’s senior professional staff, a task that it is increasingly obvious he is not capable of doing himself.
While there is no evidence that Derbyshire interfered with RIBA’s awards, the unhappy coincidence of his architects’ firm’s business relationship with Croydon Council ought now see Jo Negrini politely decline RIBA’s kind offer of an honorary fellowship, and so remove even the slightest possibility that anyone will suggest that the honour was only bestowed because of HTA Design’s contract with Croydon Council and that firm’s chairman’s new position at RIBA.
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