Our overdevelopment correspondent, BARRATT HOLMES, reports on the latest admission of incompetence from Croydon Council’s loss-making house-builders
Or it might be six.
Colm Lacey, the former council employee who has been promoted way beyond his skills and abilities to be chief executive of a multi-million-pound development company, said he didn’t know how many houses his business had sold.
“I don’t know,” Lacey said.
“You’d be surprised how quickly this changes,” he said, almost as an excuse.
Lacey was somewhat reluctant to answer the simple question, “How many houses have you sold?”
But then he was extremely reluctant to answer any questions at the housing scrutiny committee meeting, held at the Town Hall last month.
Lacey was being questioned by a committee of the borough’s elected representatives. It is fair to say that from the chair of the scrutiny committee, Labour councillor Leila Ben-Hassel, through to the lowliest reserve committee member, they appeared deeply unimpressed with Lacey’s repeated obfuscation and attempts to avoid providing straight answers to detailed questions.
It was as if the six-figure salaried executive whose business has received at least £260million in loans of public money resented being subject to scrutiny.
Pressed on the matter of how many houses his house-building company had sold, Lacey eventually conceded, “It’s five. Or six. In terms of occupied by private tenants…”.
“You mean buyers?” interjected his questioner, Councillor Andrew Pelling.
“Yes,” Lacey agreed, quickly adding, “and three council homes,” referring to one-bed homes in the Flora Court development in Thornton Heath.
Flora Court is the Brick by Brick development where the other flats in the block had been intended for shared ownership, until Lacey and his staff were told that Brick by Brick is not recognised by mortgage lenders as a registered provider of shared ownership properties.
The litany of Lacey and his company’s expensive errors is steadily growing – they are also responsible, remember, for the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls which was delivered, incomplete, 15 months late and at least £13million over its original £30million budget.
Now, it appears, Croydon Council has a house-building company that can’t sell its houses.
It is more than a year now since Lacey greeted the completion and release of homes on the Ravensdale and Rushden sites in Upper Norwood as, “A great moment for Brick by Brick, and for Croydon.”
Clearly at that time, Lacey was relishing his newly achieved status as a private-sector chief executive, leaving behind the hum-drum days when he was a mere public servant working for a local authority.
None of that first batch of properties was for social housing. Indeed, most of the homes, in what estate agents might describe as a “desirable neighbourhood in fashionable Upper Norwood”, were going for private sale. It included 17 houses, with three-bed homes being placed on the market for an eye-watering £600,000.
This is our Labour-run council’s idea of tackling the housing crisis.
Now, a year on, and according to Lacey at the scrutiny committee, only six of those 17 houses have been sold. Or maybe it’s just five. For a CEO of a building company, Lacey did not appear to be on top of his figures. Even single-digit ones.
“At the point at which we deliver our annual report and financial figures for the year,” Lacey said, “that will be the point at which to make an estimation as to how sales have gone.”
An “estimation“. From the look on the faces of the committee members, they had already made their own “estimations” as to how Brick by Brick’s sales have gone so far under Lacey.
Lacey’s discomfort at his and the company’s activities being subject to even the mildest level of scrutiny – how radical a question for a house-builder is “How many houses have you sold?”? – was plain from the moment he took his seat alongside Alison Butler, the council’s deputy leader and one of the strongest advocates of a home-building scheme that had managed to build just three council homes in its first five years.
Lacey and Butler, the cabinet member for housing, have made much of what one committee member referred to as the “League of Gentlemen-like” claim along the lines of “Croydon homes for Croydon people”.
Indeed, even today, the Brick by Brick Twitter profile includes the line: “Built in Croydon for Croydon”.
Having established that Brick by Brick had sold five, or six, houses, Pelling asked a supplementary, “How many of the homes had been bought by Croydon people?”
Again, Lacey seemed less than willing to share what really should be straightforward numbers. He explained the two-month period in which the company offers its new properties to existing residents of the borough, before he came up with what he described as “a ball-park figure” of a 40 per cent uptake. Which means that, of the five, or six, houses Brick by Brick has sold, a maximum of two have been bought by Croydon residents.
Hardly a ringing endorsement for Brick by Brick’s homes, or their prices, or the Labour council’s approach.
Repeatedly, during more than an hour and half of questioning by the scrutiny committee, Lacey ducked for cover behind the claim that the information he was being asked to share with the elected representatives was “commercially confidential”.
It led to one councillor, senior Tory figure Vidhi Mohan, to describe Lacey as “secretive”.
“Whose commercial confidentiality are you protecting?” Mohan asked.
“You are a public body. You are 100 per cent owned by a local authority. How independent are you from the council?”
Mohan was particularly critical of the “business plan” which Lacey had presented to the scrutiny committee, a document from which every important number, every critical detail, had been redacted.
“All these numbers are missing,” Mohan said. “It should come to us when it is ready to go to cabinet.”
Ben-Hassel, in the chair, agreed. In her view, this number-lite “business plan” was “a bit disappointing”.
Lacey described the redacted business plan as “very detailed”. Butler looked daggers at the chair.
Lacey excused the lack of detail, saying it would all be added in before the business plan was put before the cabinet three weeks later, as he delivered what seemed to be an angry lecture at Councillor Ben-Hassel.
“What will change in the next three weeks?” Ben-Hassel asked, not unreasonably.
“The moment we produce any figures, we start to get questions about those figures,” said the secretive Lacey, in the No Shit Sherlock moment of the night.
Though at least he’d managed to provide two key figures during the sessions, showing that a house-building company, which has received £260million-plus in loans of public money, has managed to sell just five houses.
Or maybe six.
- Shared ownership is an unaffordable joke
- A level of ineptitude which would be tolerated no where else
- Butler: We’ll let Brick by Brick build on all under-utilised spaces
- Croydon’s Brick by Brick model is well and truly broken
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