Our Town Hall reporter, KEN LEE, on how Croydon has had to call in experts from across London to help them out of their financial hole
In the closest thing to an admission of her absolute failure in her job that anyone is likely to get, Jo Negrini, the council’s chief executive, has called in one of the most experienced borough treasurers in London to come into Fisher’s Folly to try to sort out the financial crisis that has been created on her watch.
Duncan Whitfield has been “strategic director of finance and governance” and finance director at Southwark Council since 2005. Before that, he had 18 years in senior finance roles at Westminster City Council.
And since last month, Whitfield has been providing his expertise and experience to Croydon, as the independent chair of the council’s hurriedly established “FRP” – yes, they already have a councilspeak acronym for the finance review panel.
As Inside Croydon first reported, saddled with a record £1.5billion of debt and borrowings, Croydon was plunged into the coronavirus emergency with threadbare reserves and with Council Tax payments suspended and few other sources of income, the council has struggled to meet its on-going commitments, never mind the additional costs incurred because of covid-19.
The council estimates that in just two months, covid-19 has cost it £83million, with emergency grants from the government barely touching the sides.
And while Negrini, the £220,000 council CEO, and Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour council, have boldly asserted that they will not have to issue a Section 114 notice – or “doing a Northampton”, as council staff have described it to Inside Croydon – Croydon has been forced to do many of the things a local authority is obliged to do when declaring that it can no longer run a balanced budget.
Thus there is an absolute freeze on all recruitment and all “non-essential” spending has also been banned.
Early in May, to the obvious concern of the staff who contacted Inside Croydon, the council called in its auditors a month earlier than expected to scope through its books. They were soon accompanied by council finances troubleshooter Ian O’Donnell.
Inside Croydon has now confirmed that effectively – just as would happen if a S114 notice had been issued – the borough’s finances are being overseen by outside experts, with O’Donnell on the review panel along with Croydon’s finance director, Lisa Taylor, and chaired by Whitfield.
Whitfield knows Croydon very well: he is an old boy from Trinity School.
His extensive background in local authority finance could be vital, though where it leaves those who were responsible for creating the mess – Negrini, Taylor and the cabinet member for finance, councillor Simon Hall, remains to be seen.
Whitfield is widely respected within local authority circles and has served as the president of Association of Local Authority Treasurers since 2015. In Southwark, he is so trusted that he has been the borough’s returning officer and electoral registration officer, organising all elections as well as keeping an eye on the finances, for the past five years.
Sources within Fisher’s Folly suggest that Whitfield was approached to chair the emergency financial review through connections at London Councils, where his own council leader, Peter John, is the chair.
But just as when the Croydon’s children’s services were deemed to be “inadequate” and officials from outside authorities had to be called in to fix the problem, the appointment of Whitfield and the establishment of his panel is an admission that Croydon is not up to running its own affairs.
Inside Croydon understands from senior sources in the council offices that Whitfield’s panel has so far met just once, and that council staff and councillors are working “through some of the urgent actions that they have in progress”.
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