EXCLUSIVE: The beleaguered council leader has moved to avoid being held responsible for the borough’s massive £1.5bn debt and huge over-spend, reports KEN LEE
A group of councillors, secretly hand-picked by Tony Newman, will meet tonight to discuss the council’s financial crisis, and to keep a close check on the work of independent auditors and finance experts.
By its own figures, the council estimates that in the first two months of the pandemic, covid-19 has cost it £83million, with emergency grants from the government barely touching the sides.
As a comparison, when Northampton County Council went bust in 2018, they had an overspend of a “mere” £21.1million over a whole year.
Croydon’s situation is so dire that the council has been forced to call in outside consultants and a veteran finance director from another London borough, Southwark’s Duncan Whitfield, to head up its emergency finance review panel.
Now council leader Newman has established his Labour group’s own finance review panel, to review the work of the council’s finance review panel.
And put in charge of this internal committee is one of the councillors who is at least partly responsible for the council going broke in the first place.
Inside Croydon has obtained an internal email from the permanently red-faced Clive Fraser, who gets paid £26,000 of public money each year to supplement his local authority pension for the grace-and-favour position of “Labour chief whip”.
In his email, Fraser describes the make-up of the secret committee as “the recommended membership”. Which obviously means those councillors approved by Newman. The committee chair is to be Patsy Cummings, who as the deputy cabinet member for finance has a large portion of responsibility for the council’s current financial difficulties.
“This panel of councillors will be there not to dig down for details or to find a solution, but to put a block on Whitfield and the outside experts to cover the arses of people like Tony Newman, Simon Hall and the council CEO, Jo Negrini,” a source said.
“It says all you need to know about how dysfunctional the council has become under Newman that his priority in a crisis is to organise a cover-up.
“He’s already set his narrative of excuses: it’s all the fault of 10 years of Tory austerity, and covid. There’s no hint of responsibility for his council running down the reserves or running up record debts of £1.5billion. This committee’s prime task will be to make sure it stays that way.”
The source was particularly critical of the appointment of Cummings. “Simon Hall, the cabinet member for finance, is on the independent panel. Having Patsy chair this group smacks of ‘marking their own homework’. She shouldn’t be anywhere near this process.
“In any case, as the London Assembly candidate with an election to fight, she ought to be too busy with that. It’s just another set of bad decisions.”
Also on the committee, despite having no recent experience or background in managing civic finances, is Fraser, mostly to act as Newman’s nark.
Cummings and Fraser are joined by Sean Fitzsimons, the chair of the council’s scrutiny committee, Leila Ben Hassel (who in the real world works for the City Corporation), Selhurst councillor David Wood, Patricia Hay-Justice and the council’s least experienced member, Caragh Skipper, the unselected councillor for Fairfield ward and a clear favourite of Newman’s.
According to Fraser, the secret committee “provides a balance from across the Labour group, in terms of skills, background, and diversity of experience, while in addition creating an appropriate gender and BAME mix”.
The constantly thirsty Fraser makes no mention of the Secret Seven’s lack of experience in council finances.
Although other, perhaps better-qualified, Labour councillors volunteered to be part of the group to try to fix the borough’s busted budget, their offers to help were rejected by Newman. A move to expand the panel was also rebuffed.
Those who stepped forward were Stephen Mann, the Crystal Palace councillor who is a member of the council’s general purposes and audit committee, Andrew Pelling, who has worked in banking, and Sherwin Chowdhury (who he, Ed?).
The Secret Seven meet tonight, Fraser says, “to fit into the finance cycle of meetings, including the Finance Review Panel and the Cabinet”.
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