Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, on the storm gathering around the council’s ‘regeneration practitioner’ chief executive
Pressure continues to mount on Croydon’s £200,000 per year chief executive, Jo Negrini.
Another key member of her executive team is quitting the council, while there’s been no announcement of a specialist replacement for the council’s trusted finance director.
There are even suggestions that there is to be yet another reorganisation of the Town Hall’s leadership before the end of the financial year, at the end of March, as execs play a game of musical chairs in an effort to shave a few thousand pounds off the council’s spending (if not Negrini’s very generous remuneration package).
“Another reorganisation will be Jo rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic,” one despairing senior Town Hall figure said this week.
“The fact of the matter is that she, and the council, depended on Richard Simpson, and as yet, there’s been no sign of him being properly replaced.
“Now that David Butler, the education director, is going too, there seems to be a pattern emerging among senior staff at the council, and it does not reflect well on the chief executive.”
Speculation continues to mount among council staff about how long Negrini may continue in her job.
Managing staff is not the only shortcoming that has emerged from the chief executive’s suite in Fisher’s Folly.
There’s the millions of pounds in added costs of the long-delayed Fairfield Halls refurbishment.
There’s a house-building company, Brick by Brick, which Negrini set up, which has yet to finish a single house.
And there’s the huge set-back over the failure to secure property required for the prestigious College Green development.
Plus there’s the council’s rubbish contractors, Veolia, and on-going concerns over the borough’s children’s services department, still in special measures after nearly two years.
But above all else, further delays over Westfield, with demolition work now not starting in 2019 on the £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre, is a massive set-back for Negrini, the self-acclaimed “regeneration practitioner”.
It is just six months since Negrini was basking in the praise after being named as “New Londoner of the Year” by a bunch of her architect friends.
Apparently Negrini was chosen for the award for “her role in transforming Croydon and her championship of equal rights. In particular she was commended for her approach to challenging perceptions of Croydon and ‘speeding up the rate of change’ so that the borough ‘is now on its way to becoming London’s biggest growth centre with a £5.25billion investment programme’.”
How hollow those words seem today.
“Any other chief executive of a local authority, who had invested quite so much personal capital in the delivery of such a significant regeneration project, to have nothing to show for it after all these years, would surely have to consider their position,” a senior Katharine Street source said today.
Another said, “She’s made the mistake of believing her own publicity, and all the fawning articles about her in the trade press. It’s all a bit like the King’s New Clothes, and now people are beginning to point out that without Westfield, Negrini is left naked.”
Negrini might not be so vulnerable if she had the support around her of reliable executive directors.
But on top of finance chief Richard Simpson leaving, now David Butler, the council’s education director, is off to take a job heading up an academy trust. The move comes soon after Rob Henderson was installed as executive director for the struggling children, families and education division. Potentially, it was a job Butler may have applied for and did not get.
There has been no move yet to recruit a replacement for Butler, and Negrini appears to want to replace Simpson’s accountancy and public finance expertise by installing Jacqueline Harris-Baker in his place, effectively as her deputy CEO. The suggestion from more than one Town Hall source is that Negrini is keen to put in place a succession of “Yes Men” and “Yes Women”.
The council’s publicity machine, normally so busy when it has something favourable to report about the chief executive, has been silent on the high-level game of musical chairs going on at Fisher’s Folly, despite such important appointments being made in some key positions at the council.
Harris-Baker’s current job is as the Borough Solicitor. “A lot of eyebrows were raised when Negrini appointed a newly promoted corporate lawyer to acting head of resources,” said a Katharine Street source. “There are a lot of parts of that role of which, as far as I am aware, Jacqueline has little experience.”
It has recently been confirmed Harris-Baker’s deputy in the council legal department, Sean Murphy, is to step into her shoes whilst she is acting up. “Given Negrini’s track record, I’d be surprised if her plan is not for Jacqueline to become permanent,” the source said.
It is meanwhile expected that accountancy-trained Lisa Taylor will take on Simpson’s position as the council’s Section 151 officer, a role required under the Local Government Act 1972 for councils to “… make arrangements for the proper administration of their financial affairs”. Basically to ensure the council doesn’t go bust…
“Jo doesn’t respond well to people saying ‘No’ to her, but that, of course, is the role of the S151 officer. I would be very worried if more ‘Negrini compliant’ people ended up in those roles,” the Town Hall figure said.
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