WALTER CRONXITE reports on how Croydon’s unaccountable chief executive refuses to answer enquiries from Council Tax-payers, while the council leader ignores uncomfortable questions from voters
The trip to the South of France last month to a property speculators’ conference taken by Croydon chief exec Jo Negrini and three senior council officials was given approval by Tony Newman, Labour’s council leader, according to correspondence from the council seen by Inside Croydon.
Inside Croydon’s loyal reader has, not unreasonably, become curious about the benefits to the borough of year after year sending a delegation of council staff to MIPIM, the world’s biggest annual conference for the property sector, staged in Cannes.
In the past, when he was in opposition at Croydon Town Hall, Newman was a fierce critic of the council sending its staff to “network” amid the cocktails and canapes at MIPIM, calling it a “junket” that was engaged at vast public expense.
Previously, it was suggested that any council expenditure on attending MIPIM was cleared by Negrini and senior officials under their delegated authority powers. But according to an email response from a member of Negrini’s staff sent to a member of the public, this year it was Newman who approved the trip.
Newman was taking this decision at around the same time he was announcing that he was putting up Croydon Council Tax by 5 per cent this year.
So sensitive have they become around the topic that Negrini, Croydon’s unaccountable CEO, and Newman refuse to answer directly questions from the very people who pay their lavish salaries, or who they will be asking to vote for them on May 3.
One resident has written to Newman each week for more than a month seeking some explanation and evaluation of the benefits to the borough of the week-long £17,000 visit to Mediterranean seaside. Despite having staff to cope with his official correspondence, Newman has not even bothered providing the courtesy of an acknowledgement of the Council Tax-payer’s emails.
The email which Newman refuses to answer included these questions:
“If, as I read Croydon is the place to be, surely the relevant people should be beating a path to your door, not a delegation having to travel to Cannes on my money?
“Do you know why she has to go and did you support the trip?”
The resident also wrote to Negrini. When there was no response, they forwarded the enquiry on to the council’s monitoring officer, Borough Solicitor Jacqueline Harris-Baker.
Rather than draft a response to the resident, as might be expected in any normal local authority, Negrini and Harris-Baker handed over the resident’s email to their Freedom of Information team, which duly sat on the correspondence for a full four weeks, the maximum delay that they are allowed under the law.
Here is some of the resident’s email, with questions about MIPIM, which Negrini treated with outright contempt and refused to answer:
“I am concerned how my money is being spent,” the Council Tax-payer wrote.
“For the visit this year what is the agenda and what are you hoping to achieve (that you couldn’t do from the comfort of your desk in the UK)? It would also be good to see the minutes to any meetings you or your delegation attend and the outcomes with timescales attached.
“I would like to see what benefit previous visits to Cannes have had on the town and whether these could have been achieved without the visit, and if not why not?
“Does anyone one audit the trip and where is the accountability to ensure and prove it delivers value for money, over and above the business being done during normal office hours and in Croydon?”
Accompanying Negrini on the jolly to the Med in March were Colm Lacey (wearing his Brick by Brick Kiss-Me-Quick hat), Heather Cheesbrough and Shifa Mustafa, all of them Negrini appointees, and all of them believed to be among the 20 Croydon Council staff who are paid more than £100,000 per year.
Last week, finally, the resident received a response, via the council’s FOI team.
The council’s justification for sending Negrini’s delegation to Cannes was: “MIPIM is just one element of a wide range of inward investment and development enabling work undertaken by the council which is designed to increase investment into the borough and maximise benefits to local residents. The council does not measure the specific financial value of construction work directly arising from MIPIM.”
In a further council response, it was revealed that during the arduous round of champagne receptions and beer-on-the-beach events at the conference, three of its most senior officials (the council did not detail Lacey’s events) between them managed to attend the grand total of five “key panel discussions”. MIPIM lasts for four days.
This, according to the council’s tardy response, was all in order to raise “the profile of Croydon with domestic and international players. Promoting key projects and opportunities”.
Though how effective any of this might be remains a mystery. “Please see response to question 1 above,” is a bit of a mantra in the council’s letter.
The FOI response also revealed, “There is no set agenda – there is a full programme of events and activities that are staged. The Chief Executive (and other officers who attended) held discussions with commercial organisations to explore mutually beneficial development opportunities within the borough.
“In terms of what we hope to achieve, please see response to question 1 above.”
And as for any minutes of meetings, details of who Croydon’s unaccountable chief executive met on our behalf, and what may have been discussed or agreed: “No minutes are taken.”
The resident, who asked not to be named, describes the council’s continued attendance at MIPIM as “a scandal”.
“I am appalled, how can someone go to France and have a load of meetings and there be no minutes?” they said.
“At these times when the council is bleating poverty, how can this be justified? If Jo Negrini is confident in the value of the visit, then she would have had no issue in providing details of meetings and their associated benefits.”
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