WALTER CRONXITE dons his Panama hat, khaki shorts and espadrilles to track down the council’s £200,000 CEO on her annual spring break to the South of France, all funded by Croydon Council Tax-payers
With Westfield delayed indefinitely, Fairfield Halls at least £11million over budget, and her house-building company still to deliver its first new home after four years, Jo Negrini is now desperately trying to cover-up details of the lack of “affordable housing” provision by publicly funded Brick by Brick.
The efforts at secrecy have seen council officials effectively ordered to break the law in order to withhold information which should be in the public domain.
Negrini, Croydon Council’s £200,000 per year chief executive, is “not in the office this week” according to the junior staffer left to answer her phone in Fisher’s Folly this morning.
That undoubtedly means that Negrini has jetted off to Cannes for her annual beano on the sunny Cote d’Azur at MIPIM, the international property speculators conference, also known as a “Booze and Hookerfest”.
MIPIM is what council leader Tony Newman in the past, before Labour won control of the Town Hall, called “a junket”.
For Negrini, this week looks like a hard slog through a relentless series of networking cocktails, canapés on the beach, “business” lunches and high-powered “meetings”. In the past, secretive Negrini has refused to detail who she has been meeting or what she has been discussing. But it has all been done at Council Tax-payers’ expense – last year’s bill for the four-day jaunt for Negrini and some of her closest chums at the council was at least £17,000.
In 2018, Negrini and her little troupe did the rounds under the slogan of “Croydon: It’s Happening”, which with the benefit of hindsight appears even more misjudged now than it did at the time.
With Westfield and Hammerson putting their £1.4billion supermall redevelopment of the town centre under “review”, indefinitely, it suggests that Negrini’s jaunt to the MIPIM junket in 2019 will have provided a particular challenge to whoever was charged with dreaming up the catchy publicity posters.
“What’s she gone there for?” one councillor asked this weekend. “What’s she got to offer the Russian and Chinese property magnates? Discounted weekends at the Croydon Park Hotel?”
Unfortunately, Inside Croydon is as yet unable to report the detail of who will comprise the Croydon delegation from Negrini’s extensive team at Fisher’s Folly, or who is accompanying them from their public relations spin doctors, such as Grey Label, and their “partners”, including Croydon BID, since the council has stubbornly failed to respond to our Freedom of Information request seeking the size of the council delegation and the costs they are incurring.
But Inside Croydon has discovered two other, egregious examples where the council has deliberately ignored the strict requirements of the Freedom of Information Act and withheld or delayed providing public information – in one instance after a request from an elected councillor.
Robert Ward is the Conservative councillor for Selsdon and Addington Village. Back in January, he submitted an FoI request about the expected costs of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment, which is being overseen by Negrini’s housebuilders, Brick by Brick, and is running at least 15 months late.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, local authorities such as Croydon have up to 20 working days in which to provide responses to requests. By law, Ward was due his answer on February 20.
Despite polite reminders, the council withheld its response by more than a week. When it eventually arrived, the council was forced to admit that Brick by Brick expected to go at least £11million over the original £30million budget.
The delay in providing its response meant that the vital information was not available and so no questions could be asked at key Town Hall public meetings and scrutiny committee earlier in February. Effectively, council officials had managed to gag councillors – the elected representatives of the Council Tax-payers who are ultimately footing the bill for the Fairfield Halls refurbishment – by denying them this information.
The official reason given by the council when Ward questioned the delay was “this is with our press team to review and sign off the response”.
Now Ward is not a journalist, and there is nothing in the FoI Act that suggests that council press officers have any authority to overrule the law and delay the delivery of proper and reasonable enquiries about the spending of millions of pounds of public money.
“It was a clear and calculated piece of news management by the council to avoid awkward questions at public meetings,” a Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon today. “It looks as if they didn’t want to expose Brick by Brick’s Colm Lacey to questions about the mismanagement of the Fairfield refurbishment when he was in front of the scrutiny committee.”
There is a further example of the council deliberately breaking the law over FoI, in relation to a detailed requested submitted on behalf of this website over the building provision of Brick by Brick.
Brick by Brick is the council-owned housing developer, set up in 2015 and who, despite already having received £262million in public funding from Croydon, now says it needs another £78million loan.
In January, Inside Croydon submitted an FoI request to the council asking for them to detail, ward-by-ward throughout the borough, the number of homes delivered by Brick by Brick, and breakdowns of how many BxB units are being provided for social rent, shared ownership, market rent and private sale.
We also asked for details of the “developers’ dividends” – Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy payments – being made for each site.
The council, by law, was supposed to provide that data by February 15.
To date, it has delivered nothing. The response is close to one month overdue. But the council admits it does have the information. The delay was referred to the council’s legal team last month for review. The council’s senior legal officer is Jacqueline Harris-Baker, known to be a close colleague of Negrini.
According to one helpful council official, “The reason for delay is the press office have asked us to clarify the response with the service and we envision this being with you in the next few days.” That was a month ago. Since when, nada.
Of course, Croydon Council’s press office has no powers to delay or withhold information requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The council’s internal review – run by the council – has to run its course before the matter can be raised as a formal complaint with the Information Commissioner.
But in the meantime, potentially enlightening information about the way Brick by Brick is spending hundreds of millions of pounds of public money under a Labour-run council is being withheld from the public.
As one Labour councillor said this weekend, “We were elected on a manifesto commitment to be the most open and transparent council ever. And then you get this. It makes the council look shifty and secretive, as if we’ve got something to hide.
“I’d be interested to know who authorised the withholding of this information in this way.”
Which means that there’s another FoI request being drafted…
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