Jo Negrini, Croydon’s chief exec, has spent more than £12,000 of Council Tax-payers’ money for her and three council executives to spend most of this week out of the office in Fisher’s Folly and instead jet off to enjoy cocktails and canapes in the South of France.
For Negrini is back among her chums and contacts at MIPIM in Cannes, the world’s biggest gathering of property speculators and developers – what has sometimes been described as a “booze and hookers’ fest”.
Today, the pimping was taking place in what is called “the London Pavilion” at the conference, where what was on offer was chunks of real estate in south London, much of it publicly owned.
Joining Negrini at a panel discussion trying to plug the “opportunities” – a developer euphemism for easy profits – to be had around Croydon town centre was Gavin Barwell, the Tory government’s housing minister and minister for London.
Among the items on the agenda was the stalled £1.4billion Hammersfield regeneration of the Whitgift shopping centre, which Croydon Council has built its presentations around at the last five MIPIM events in Cannes.
It was Barwell who played a role in bringing together Westfield and rival shopping mall operators Hammersfield in 2012. He did so then not only as MP for Croydon Central but also as a governor of the Whitgift Foundation, the owners of the freehold of the Whitgift Centre.
The shiny, new megamall ought to have been close to completion by now, but Westfield have spent the past year tinkering with their plans to squeeze in even more, high-yield “executive apartments” into the scheme. Work on demolition of the old centre is unlikely to begin before early 2018.
“There is a huge sense of excitement about the transformation. We are part of London but not just a dormitory suburb,” planning minister Barwell told the audience at lunchtime.
“Huge” appeared to be Barwell’s word of the day. “There are huge opportunities for people who want to come here and invest,” he said.
Negrini was never going to contradict that. “Something is really shifting now,” she said. “Being provocative and taking a risk has been a game changer for us,” said Negrini, who failed to mention that the risks being taken have tended to involve using public property or money.
Such as this week, where we have Croydon Council spending thousands of pounds of public money to send four of its most senior staff to attend MIPIM to run a sales exercise effectively on behalf of already fabulously wealthy developers.
It was Negrini, the £185,000 local authority official who has never knowingly turned down an opportunity to promote her own profile among multi-million-dollar developers, that made the decision to spend such a large chunk of public money.
The total bill for Negrini, Shifa Mustafa, the “executive director of place”, Heather Cheesbrough, the “director of planning and strategic transport”, and Colm Lacey, the “director of development”, to fly to the South of France economy class and stay in a 2-star hotel, paying for their MIPIM passes and stand and to organise today’s session is £12,531.20.
That doesn’t include any expenses which the Croydon staffers might incur during the course of their stay, nor does it seem to include the costs of Croydon Council being among the co-sponsors of the Beer on the Beach event which took place earlier today.
That £12,500 figure represents a 50 per cent hike in the amount spent by Croydon Council to attend MIPIM in 2015, before Negrini was given the keys to the CEO’s office.
This year’s expenditure was never debated by elected councillors at the Town Hall and there was no officer’s report drafted to make the case for spending so much money on attending the four-day conference.
Make no mistake, it matters not who gets elected to “run the council”, it is the largely unaccountable senior council executives who make all the key decisions about how the borough is run.
In this case, according to a delayed response to a Freedom of Information request, it was Negrini who took the decision after discussion with Mustrafa and unspecified “cabinet members” under the council’s “delegated” authority rules. These rules pretty much allow Negrini to do as she pleases as long as she keeps the final bill below certain limits.
It is perhaps significant that the council’s official response opted not to describe Lacey as the very well paid council employee that he is, but as “the Managing Director of Brick by Brick development company (Colm Lacey) is also attending on behalf of Brick by Brick”. This merging of jobs and priorities presents ample potential for serious conflicts of interests.
Brick by Brick is the council-owned house-building company which appears entirely unaccountable through the democratic process, but which is able to take council land, buildings and finance and utilise these public assets to develop what, in the vast majority of cases, are private flats for sale.
And while there was no cost-benefit assessment conducted by council officers to justify the great public expense, someone in Fisher’s Folly did go to the trouble of trying to make a case for Croydon having a presence at MIPIM.
And this year, unlike every year since 2010 when some senior council bureaucrats have justified spending a week on a jolly by the Med, Negrini has got to be in Cannes because of Brexit.
“The council is attending MIPIM to ensure that developers and investors are aware fully of the capacity, opportunity and cost effectiveness that Croydon affords so that they prioritise the borough when considering development and investment,” the official response stated.
“The council is seeking to promote investment and awareness of development sites which will help to promote development activity which will create new employment, homes and income for the borough. Post-Brexit it is more important than ever that the council explains, celebrates and promotes the successful development of the borough thus far, and presents the borough as a place of ongoing opportunity for investors.”
But although these council employees are using public money to attend MIPIM, the council’s FoI response refused to detail what Negrini and her mates are doing while in Cannes.
In response to a question, “Please provide the full programme of events and activities being staged by Croydon Council at MIPIM 2017. In the case of receptions or hosted meals, please also provide a full list of invitees for the event”, the council responded: “The chief executive (and other officers who attended MIPIM) are likely to hold discussions with commercial organisations to explore mutually beneficial development opportunities within the borough.”
Get that: “mutually beneficial”.
But who gets to judge quite how “beneficial” such discussions might be? Certainly not the public who are paying for Negrini to attend this junket.
Because the council response continued: “The council considers that details of these discussions are likely to be exempt under the exemptions provided for within FoIA, in particular Sections 41 (Information Provided in Confidence) and Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act (Commercial Interests).”
So according to Croydon Council, they can’t tell the public that Negrini’s out on the piss today with her “mutually beneficial” mates from the Cronx Brewery (who supported Tory MP Gavin Barwell’s re-election campaign in 2015) and Rise Gallery (who’s about to be handed a vast new gallery space underneath the Fairfield Halls), or with the Whitgift Foundation’s real estate managers Stiles Harold Williams, and anyone else who happens to turn up to the Beer on the Beach event which PR firm Grey Label has been touting to all 20,000 thirsty delegates at MIPIM.
Because it would be commercially confidential.
The council also refused to name the Cote d’Azur hotel at which Negrini and her staff are staying because, in all seriousness, they claimed, “The release of this information could create a risk to the physical safety and endanger our council officers”.
This is odd for two reasons: it assumes that Negrini and her council colleagues might be more at risk of an attack or assault while in a Cannes hotel than, say, when they are walking through the streets of central Croydon on their way to Fisher’s Folly, which is, after all, where they are supposed to work most weekdays throughout the year.
And it also exposes the fact that, at €118 per night for rooms in a 2-star hotel, the Croydon Council Tax-payer is getting mightily ripped off, because any quick internet search reveals that there are several 3- and 4-star hotels in Cannes, with rooms available this week, at around half the price being paid to keep our council officials safe and sound each night.
But at least we can be grateful for small mercies: there are no Croydon councillors attending MIPIM this year (imagine the potential scandal of Tony Newman turning up for a few free beers!), and according to the FoI response, “The Council did not appoint an agency or consultants to manage and organise its participation at MIPIM.
“The Council is not receiving any sponsorship to fund its attendance at MIPIM. All of the £12,531.20 is being funded by the council,” they said.
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