KEN LEE reports on a Town Hall meeting to discuss one of the biggest crises in the borough’s history, and which locked out the press and public
Jo Negrini, the £185,000 per year council chief executive, issued a thinly veiled threat to the borough’s elected councillors at a behind-closed-doors meeting in the Town Hall chamber last night, as she pleaded to keep her job.
“It’s a sign of a failing council that seeks heads to roll,” Negrini told the 50-or-so councillors, Tory and Labour, who had turned up for what her council employees had taken to describing to as a “training workship”.
Negrini repeated her “failing council” message more than once.
This was clearly her prepared line to take, with her own job on the line. Trouble is, the message Negrini communicated was that, under her leadership, Croydon Council is failing.
“What we need is stability,” Negrini told the invitation-only audience.
What she meant was: please don’t sack me or my bestie Barbara Peacock.
Last night’s Kafkaesque event was held in place of a scheduled cabinet meeting, and was supposed to be to update councillors on the progress in rescuing the reputation, and improving the performance, of the council’s children’s services department following the damning report from Ofsted inspectors last month. Truth was, there has been little progress to report.
Peacock, the executive director in charge of the People department at the council, and therefore children’s services, and Negrini are both in the firing line over the systemic failures evident in one sensitive area of the council’s functions.
Peacock was appointed by Negrini to her £150,000 a year job just over a year ago, having worked in a similar role at Medway. In Medway, it had taken Peacock more than two years to drag its children’s services department out of its “inadequate” status.
It could just be that Peacock, therefore, is not quite the dynamic figure required to turnaround a dire situation in Croydon which is, at least partially, of her own making.
Councillors were told that Croydon’s children’s services, currently under the supervision of a government-appointed commissioner will not have made enough progress to be taken back in-house by the time the commissioner, Eleanor Brazil, reports in December. In fact, Croydon’s children’s services could be in a form of “special measures” for three years, councillors were told.
“It’s a good job Peacock’s not a motivational speaker,” one of the councillors said. “She sent half of us to sleep.” That may have been the intention.
In the absence of council leader Tony Newman (explained in another exclusive iC report), the meeting was chaired by one of his deputies, the more convivial Stuart Collins. Alison Butler, Newman’s other deputy leader and a member of his inner circle, was at the meeting but she clearly had no wish to be “involved” in such a messy business.
Collins tried to impress upon the 50-or-so attending councillors that this behind-closed-doors meeting was strictly confidential. There was no webcast, the press gallery was vacant, and while minutes were being taken, they are unlikely to be published any time soon.
As far as specifics on the work undertaken in the past four weeks or so since the Ofsted report was published, Negrini and Peacock offered little. Questions on the interviewing of children when they return home after going missing were raised by Tory backbenchers Sue Bennett and Andy Stranack, but were batted back. There is a scrutiny meeting tonight at which more detailed questions will be more appropriate.
As far as Negrini was concerned, last night’s gathering was about communicating her message, that the knee-jerk reaction of sackings just undermines the whole organisation.
There is a growing anger among the borough’s elected councillors at the crass mismanagement of the children’s services department by Negrini, Peacock and others. At the previous council meeting, councillors felt that they were lectured, patronised and gagged by Negrini, who after telling the councillors they are all “corporate parents”, then directed the Mayor to permit only a handful to speak or ask questions at that meeting.
Now, some of the most senior councillors are openly accepting that the self-declared unsackable Negrini ought to pay with her job.
Two middle management figures left their jobs with the council over the summer as a result of the Ofsted findings. So far, no elected figures have been sacked or resigned over the matter, though the cabinet member responsible for children’s matters, Upper Norwood councillor Alisa Flemming, remains vulnerable.
“She looked very down throughout the meeting,” one of her colleagues said.
Another considered the politics of the situation, and the imperative of self-preservation for council leader Newman. “They didn’t fix the children’s services problems in Bromley, and the council leader there ended up resigning,” one of Newman’s Labour councillors said.
“Here, he’ll not want anyone to go before Brazil’s report in December. But if that report casts the council in a bad light, Newman will need someone to throw overboard so that he doesn’t have to go himself.”
And, let us not forget, December will be a little more than four months before the next council elections.
- Damning verdict on Croydon’s ‘inadequate’ children’s services
- Croydon’s leadership may be resigned to changes at the top
- Commissioner appointed to oversee children’s services
- Negrini tells staff: ‘There are some things that we don’t do well’
- Two key figures leave council over Ofsted inspectors’ report
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