By applying ’emergency measures’ during the pandemic crisis, the council leader has taken on the role of an unelected mayor, as KEN LEE reports
Croydon’s elected councillors were told by email on Tuesday night that they will have little or no role to play in Town Hall decision-making for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.
Don’t expect any outcry over this apparent affront to democracy, though: just like Premier League footballers, the borough’s 70 councillors will remain on full pay even though they have even fewer meetings to turn up for than usual.
Instead of regular council, cabinet and committee meetings, Tony Newman, the council leader, and his trusted chief executive, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, have invested themselves with a set of executive powers that will allow them to sign-off on all sorts of issues without any public forum or debate by councillors.
It will also see Negrini able to take sole charge of up-coming planning applications – potentially including a raft of applications from council-owned Brick by Brick.
“This is exactly the kind of overweening authority that Tony has been scaremongering about as he covers his arse against the possibility of being replaced by a democratically mayor,” a Katharine Street source said last night.
“It makes Tony the undemocratically, unelected mayor of Croydon.”
The email was dated March 31, 2020, and has been seen by Inside Croydon. It was sent by Negrini’s close colleague, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, the council’s executive director for resources, and the most senior legal official at the local authority.
Harris-Baker gives as a reason for investing themselves with such all-embracing powers the fact that because of the covid-19 emergency and the lockdown, “it is no longer possible to hold member meetings”.
Yet last night Newman managed to use a smartphone app to convene a meeting of, according to one attendee, “virtually all 41” of the borough’s Labour councillors – demonstrating, perhaps, that while holding meetings is technically possible, neither the council leader nor Negrini have the will to attempt to maintain some vestige of a democratic process.
As Inside Croydon reported yesterday, Negrini, the borough’s £220,000 per year chief executive, has already been exercising her idea of non-accountability by choosing to respond to her emails only “intermittently”. Even emails from senior elected councillors have gone without a response from the CEO.
Negrini was among the participants in last night’s “virtual” Town Hall meeting, so she does not have the excuse of being unwell for the failure of her and her “executive team” to respond to her correspondence.
In Tuesday’s email, Harris-Baker claims that the Labour-run council is waiting for the Coronavirus Act 2020 to be passed by parliament “to permit virtual/remote meetings of members”.
In the vacuum created, Newman and Negrini are to take all decisions by themselves, with input only from their closest colleagues.
“As we have a Leader and Cabinet model of governance, it is possible for all executive decisions to be taken directly by the Leader and where it is necessary for executive decisions to be taken, the Leader can take such executive decisions, or in certain cases delegate his authority to relevant Cabinet Members instead of a full Cabinet public meeting,” Harris-Baker wrote.
“In addition, the Leader has made provision (by an addendum to his Scheme of delegation dated 25 March 2020) that should he be unable to act the Statutory Deputy Leader will act in his stead with his full authority and power. If both the Leader and Statutory Deputy Leader [Alison Butler] are unable to act, further provision has been made to allow the Deputy Leader [Stuart Collins] to act.”
Harris-Baker continued by explaining to the borough’s elected representatives how they will now be by-passed over all major decisions by Negrini: “In relation to non-executive decision making: Members will be aware that at present certain functions must statutorily be undertaken at a meeting of full Council or by a non-executive committee where Councillors are present ‘in person’. The Constitution does provide for cases of urgency where the Chief Executive may act to take urgent decisions.
“This will usually be exercised in consultation with relevant members e.g. non-executive committee chairs. This option is available where the interests of the Council are prejudiced if a decision were not to be taken prior to the next scheduled ordinary meeting of the Full Council, but may not be relied upon if there is a statutory provision preventing delegation or a statutory requirement that a decision of that nature be taken by full Council.”
According to Harris-Baker, her boss, Negrini, last week signed off on “an addendum to her Scheme of Authorisation” to formalise Harris-Baker as her deputy chief executive in the event that the CEO “should she be unable to exercise her powers”. Guy van Dichele, the council exec director for adult social care, is the nominated No3 at the council.
Harris-Baker then adds, “In the event of urgency, it will be noted from the above that the non-executive functions of Planning Committee can be carried out by the Chief Executive.”
It may just be a coincidence, but Brick by Brick, the council-owned, loss-making house-builder, has another wedge of planning applications about to be submitted for approval, most of which have already generated considerable opposition from residents affected by the plans, and some where the coronavirus emergency has been used as an excuse to bypass the full consultation process. Having had the first tranche of sites whipped through the planning committee, placing these kind of powers into the hands of Negrini means that there won’t even the need for that kind of pretence any longer.
Harris-Baker justified this in her email by writing, “Delay to a planning application of itself would not be considered to be urgency for the purposes of the constitution but there may be exceptions to this on a case by case basis where a planning decision is considered to be so significant or important that delaying it would in fact prejudice the interests of the Council (e.g. a planning decision that is relevant to the Council’s COVID-19 emergency response). If that were to be the case, the Chief Executive would be able to take a decision and would do so in consultation with Planning Committee members.”
Harris-Baker did offer some faint hope of a semblance of a democratic process, though, adding: “At present, no such decisions are expected in the immediate future or before the ability to have virtual Planning Committee meetings.”
How such “virtual” meetings will actually function, with Paul Scott, the developers’ friend, pulling the strings, remains to be seen.
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