Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, unravels the latest extravagance with public money by the Labour-run council’s chief executive
Jo Negrini, Croydon Council’s £212,000 per year chief executive, last month spent nearly £20,000 of public money so that she and three colleagues could enjoy their now annual springtime “junket” to the South of France.
That means that the council’s spending on attending the property speculators’ event has more than doubled since Labour took control of the council and appointed Negrini as its CEO.
But Negrini, the borough’s best-paid public servant, is refusing to reveal the full details of what she or her besties did while on their getaway in Cannes.
And Negrini’s council has even managed to break the law by withholding information on the council staff’s visit to MIPIM, the world’s largest international property developers’ conference.
The four-day-long event, with cocktail parties held on yachts moored in the Mediterranean, gala dinners in some of the world’s finest hotels, and ample drinks usually provided at someone else’s expense, is regularly attended by property speculators from the Far East, Russian oligarchs and representatives from oil-rich Middle Eastern states.
How much actual business gets done is somewhat moot. Some who have attended have described MIPIM as a “booze and hookerfest”.
According to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Inside Croydon, Negrini’s party for MIPIM this year included herself, naturally, plus Shifa Mustafa, her appointee as “executive director – Place” (annual remuneration package: a cool £174,178 – up 16 per cent in just two years) and Heather Cheesbrough, the council’s “director of planning and strategic transport (who is understood to be on a package north of £130,000).
Tagging along with them was Colm Lacey, previously the council executive in charge of development, but now specified by the council as “managing director and chief executive of Brick by Brick”.
Given that Alison Butler, the council cabinet member responsible for building no council homes, has said – more than once – that Brick by Brick is building “local homes for local people”, having the company CEO attend a conference for international property developers might appear to some to be somewhat contradictory.
But mounting sensitivities about a council house-building company that is building no council homes is beginning to show at the Town Hall. The council’s FoI response repeatedly states that “Brick by Brick operate independently from the council”… even though they do so using millions of pounds of council funds, build on council land, and have until only very recently been working out of the council’s offices.
As has become Negrini’s usual practice, she never sought formal permission from the council’s for her trip to Cannes, nor was her expenditure of council money ever debated in the Town Hall.
In the formal FoI response, the council states: “The decision to attend MIPIM was taken in Q3, 2018 jointly between the chief executive…”, meaning Negrini, “… executive director of place…”, meaning Mustafa, “… and cabinet members.”
The names of the councillors responsible for rubber-stamping this jaunt to “a junket” remain withheld by Croydon Council.
There was no official council report prepared to justify the expenditure or lay out the aims and objectives of having three of the council’s most senior staffers out of the office for the best part of the week. “A report was not necessary; the decision was taken in line with the council’s scheme of delegation which allows officers to make decisions.” Which is nice.
In total, the trip cost Croydon Council (no one would be foolish enough to believe that Brick by Brick expenditure is anything other than the spending of money loaned to it by the council):
There may have been some additional, out-of-pocket expenses incurred by Negrini and her mates. The council failed to detail any.
Negrini and her council directors spent £2,536.10 on flights.
Lacey must have gone by EasyJet, because his flights and a “car transfer” came to just £504.
The council staff appear to have enjoyed some top-notch AirBnB accommodation, because it cost more than £250 per night for each of them, as their accommodation came in at £2,271.81.
Lacey stayed in Air BnB for a mere £123, though that includes £147 discount “following last minute AirBnB cancellation in 2018”. Bless.
Participation in the conference and their MIPIM go-anywhere-eat-and-drink-all-you-like piss-up passes cost £4,000 each for Negrini, Mustafa and Cheesbrough.
Again, it appears that Brick by Brick’s head honcho Lacey had to make do with the budget option, as his MIPIM pass cost just £1,752 – though the company should be able to recover 20 per cent VAT on that. Which is nice.
The overall spend on Croydon council’s trip to the South of France has been creeping up, year by year, since Negrini got the top job at Fisher’s Folly.
After considerable adverse publicity – much of it led by Croydon Labour when in opposition – by 2014 and 2015, the council budget for attending MIPIM had been reduced to £8,000 each time. That appears almost reasonable now.
So Croydon residents, who last month got letters advising them of a 4.8 per cent increase in their Council Tax, have had to front up another inflation-busting increase so that Negrini, Mustafa and Cheesbrough can burnish their CVs and top up their tans.
The council FoI does not attempt to justify the 2019 costs, nor to explain how Croydon’s delegation to the event is now costing 150 per cent more than it did five years ago.
The council’s FoI response was, in any case, one month late.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, local authorities such as Croydon must, by law, reply within 20 working days to questions over the spending of public money and the conduct of public servants. Inside Croydon submitted its request this year on February 15. The reply was not delivered until this week. No explanation nor apology was offered for the delay, which is thought was ordered by the council’s press office.
When they arrived, the council’s answers were light on many details, especially with whom Negrini had held meetings and discussions.
“The chief executive (and other officers who attended MIPIM) held discussions with commercial organisations to explore mutually beneficial development opportunities for the borough of Croydon,” the council said.
“Croydon Council attended MIPIM in partnership with the Develop Croydon Partnership and Ruskin Square (Stanhope and Schroders). The partners had a joint stand as part of the London Pavilion where delegates were able to see information about what Croydon’s regeneration programme looks like.”
The council FoI response did detail some of Negrini and her team’s engagements.
- Jo Negrini was a speaker on the inaugural panel at the London Stand on Tuesday March 12, 10am
- Shifa Mustafa was a speaker on the Good Growth – Delivering the Homes London Needs panel – yes, seriously! – discussing, according to the council, “Croydon’s ambitions to deliver affordable homes in Croydon” on Wednesday March 13 at 3pm. So steady on the Chablis at lunchtime…
- Croydon Brunch on the Beach on Thursday March 14 from 10am to 11.30am with “an audience of invited guests”. Cosy.
- Beers on the Beach on Thursday March 14 at 4pm, “Sponsored by the Hub”, the developers building flats on Queen’s Gardens, the town centre green space.
- The Croydon team were present on the Croydon Stand at pre-arranged time slots to allow MIPIM delegates to come and meet the team.
As you can see, this was hardly the most demanding schedule. For four people.
As Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini’s council goes from one development disaster to another – Westfield, Fairfield Halls, the College Green property purchase debacle, and not forgetting Brick by Brick – she and her acolytes have been forced to scramble around for quick-fix alternatives to the original plan for the town centre.
In Cannes, Negrini chose to announce to the property speculators of the world, before any announcement was made to the borough, or to the residents who pay her generous salary, or to their elected representatives, that after previous schemes have fallen through, she’s now gone out and signed the borough up to a partnership with the country’s 98th ranked university for something she’s calling the “Croydon Creative Campus”.
The council’s FoI response also states: “Officers…”, meaning council employees, “… also engaged in meetings with individual developers and investors and the council considers that details of these discussions to be commercially sensitive information and covered by the exemption provided in Section 43 of Freedom of Information Act. This exemption applies to information which if disclosed would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person, including the council.”
Conveniently, this also helps to disguise how many hours Negrini and her Croydon cronies might have spent on the beach or quaffing Chardonnay on board someone’s private yacht.
Last time we checked, Croydon Council was a local authority, not a commercial entity, and its staff, including Negrini, are public servants. Yet Croydon commonly uses this FoI exemption to help cover-up its more questionable activities – such as the area of property development in which it has repeatedly shown itself to be thoroughly inept.
In the past, before his Labour group took control of Croydon Town Hall, Tony Newman, the council leader, criticised MIPIM and Croydon’s participation in it, decrying it as a “junket” at public expense.
Now, Newman has had to get one of his closest political allies to defend the indefensible for him.
Buried deep within a turgid and poorly drafted report on development submitted to this month’s full council meeting, Paul Scott (or “Paul Scot”, as he appears on the official paperwork), wrote, “MIPIM is a place where organisations can show the world what they have to offer and can make connections with organisations to potentially partner with in the future…
“The next step in Croydon’s rapid progress of using housing, cultural, placemaking and retail development to transform the city …”, Croydon is not a city “… into one of London’s most desirable places to live, work and play…
“Attending MIPIM gives Croydon Council the opportunity to launch and promote major announcements on the world’s stage to a targeted audience, all in one place at one time. This makes for a far greater impact and allows for greater efficiencies than going out to individually meet and target international investors, developers, and now universities to inform them about Croydon’s offers and aspirations for its residents and businesses.”
So, under Newman and Scott’s Croydon Labour group, MIPIM’s not a junket any more. That’s official.
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