Niro Sirisena, the Croydon Labour councillor who resigned at the end of September after “a serious incident” which placed him subject to police investigation, continued to spend public money after he’d quit the council.
Before his unexplained disappearing act from public life, Fairfield ward councillor Sirisena had been employed for six months as an aide in the constituency office of Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones. The councillor failed to make any formal declarations of his job, as is required by law.
This, though, is thought to be unconnected to Sirisena’s abrupt resignation as a councillor, which two months later the Labour leadership on Croydon Council stubbornly refuses to explain.
Croydon Labour announced Sirisena’s abrupt resignation as a councillor on September 24.
But according to sources close to those involved, the “serious incident” occurred on either September 16 or 17.
It came after one of the opening events at the Fairfield Halls, where the cheap prosecco was flowing for invited guests and VIPs, and for the thirsty Sirisena, who was there as Tony Newman’s deputy cabinet member for culture.
Sirisena’s resignation from his £21,595 in Town Hall position is understood to have come only after he had discussions with councillor colleague Chris Clark, with whom he was sharing a room while they were attending the Labour Party annual conference in Brighton.
An investigation by Inside Croydon has found that during September, Sirisena had gone on a bit of a spending spree – using other people’s money – doling out more than £4,000 in grants from his own councillor ward budget.
The money was allocated to five different causes within Fairfield ward, and all of the grants were matched by the very thirsty Clark.
In total, £8,770.44 was disbursed from the two councillors’ ward budgets in September this year, half of that coming from Sirisena’s fund.
The majority of that money was allocated after the “serious incident”, and one grant, for £300 each from both Sirisena and Clark, was allocated on September 26 – two days after Croydon Labour said that Sirisena had resigned as a councillor.
The third councillor for Fairfield ward, Mary Croos, did not allocate any of the public money in her ward budget to the causes chosen by Clark and Sirisena in September.
According to the council’s official accounts of the Fairfield councillors’ ward budgets, Sirisena made the following grants:
- Sep 5 £1,195.22 to PlayNation
- Sep 5 £1,875.00 to Stage Champions
- Sep 19 £1,000.00 to Croydon New Communities and Refugee Forum
- Sep 23 £15.00 to Climate Action
- Sep 26 £300.00 to Music Relief Foundation
All of these were duplicated by Clark.
The ward budgets page for Fairfield can be viewed on the council website by clicking here – until some jobsworth decides to remove the historic record of public spending by public servants from the public’s view.
Councillor ward budgets were introduced by the Labour administration under Tony Newman in 2014 as “a dedicated and flexible resource that councillors can use to support specific local issues and priorities financially. The funds are intended to encourage resident-led activities that are independent and self-sustaining”.
When it originally announced the scheme, the council said, “Councillors may also use their budgets to facilitate local community activity, for example through hiring a room for a group to hold a meeting or for the printing of publicity materials.”
Under the ward budget system, all 70 Croydon councillors are allocated £12,000 per year – an annual total of £840,000. That’s an awful lot of rooms hired and leaflets printed.
Some sources inside the Town Hall suggest that the ward budget system has got out of hand, is poorly supervised and unchecked, and therefore open to abuse, with council money being allocated to pet projects, commercial businesses and other schemes, with no real measure of the benefit or return for the community.
The council states that community ward budgets cannot be used for “projects that would undermine council approved priorities”; “projects that create an ongoing maintenance cost for the council”; and “funding the mainstream activities of a commercial or voluntary sector organisation”.
Also forbidden is the “supporting any kind of political activity including lobbying or campaigning against the council or its agreed priorities”.
Which makes the £2,400 handed out by Clark and Sirisena at the start of September to Daniel Grossett at PlayNation appear highly contentious. This money was allocated by Sirisena before his involvement in the “serious incident”, but the grant is an example of how council money may be being used for purposes that are not consistent with council policy.
PlayNation is one of the businesses based in the old Allders building which was forced to endure months of hardship when the council sent in the bailiffs to forcibly close the business, locking the traders out. The council said at the time that the lock-out was necessary for it to complete its Compulsory Purchase Order of the site, on behalf of the Westfield redevelopment for which there is still no stated start date.
According to the council’s ward budget accounts for Clark and Sirisena, they each allocated nearly £1,200 to PlayNation basically so that the owner, Grossett, could pay his staff wages.
Grossett’s grant application stated: “Due to the unfortunate handling of the Croydon Council taking of our previous venue, my staff and I have been left unable to trade or even serve our community with answers.
“This all happened at a terrible time right on the cusp of the summer holidays, our busiest time with our most expensive setup. Thanks to this, we’ve found ourselves in dire straits concerning being able to pay staff, having already had to let go of our two prospective summer hires.
“This will allow me to keep and pay the remainder of staff hours lost to this situation.”
Which is all undoubtedly very true, and regrettable, but Katharine Street sources question whether this was ever meant to be the purpose of the councillor ward grants.
“This grant, and Sirisena continuing to allocate council cash after he’d resigned as a councillor, just shows how poor the council’s system of checking and accounting for this money is concerned,” the source said.
“Clark and Sirisena have used their councillor ward budgets to pay PlayNation’s wages, probably breaking two or three of the rules which the council laid down. PlayNation will undoubtedly be eligible for compensation from the council for the lock-out, and quite rightly, too. What happens to the money they got through the ward budgets then?
“Who signed off on these payments? Who authorised a payment from a councillor ward budget from Sirisena when he was no longer a councillor?
“Clark was at the centre of matters when Sirisena was forced to resign, so he must have been aware that a council grant was being made by someone with no authority to do so.
“At a time of austerity cuts to the council’s budgets, we’re open to criticism that we’re just frittering away funds on a range of activities, some of which are of questionable, if any, value to the community.”
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