UnFairbnb: Council has nothing to show for £200,000 spend

EXCLUSIVE: Our Town Hall reporter, KEN LEE, provides a reminder of another significant amount of council cash that was poorly spent – but helped line the pockets of ‘friends and family’ of the Town Hall’s Labour leadership

‘Fairness’: David Evans

Do you remember the Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission which produced a report in 2015?

We’d forgive you if you didn’t – no one at Croydon Council seems to remember it.

The Fairness Commission was a council-funded project, with the then relatively new Bishop of Croydon, Jonathan Clark, installed as a sympathetic but politically neutral chair. Other Labour-run councils in London had run similar commissions, and this review of opportunities and inequalities in Croydon had been promised in the 2014 manifesto which had helped Labour regain control of the Town Hall.

Work organising the commission’s meetings and drafting the report was carried out by The Campaign Company, a firm founded by the one-time Croydon councillor David Evans. This company was contracted to do the work by the council with a handy budget of up to £200,000.

Evans is a buddy of Croydon Council leader Tony Newman. He also shares a daughter with Alison Butler, the deputy leader of the council and cabinet member for housing. A former aide to Tony Blair, Evans was recently appointed general secretary of the Labour Party.

So you might think that the work of Croydon’s Fairness Commission supervised by such a high-profile and prestigious organisation as Evans’ The Campaign Company would deliver far-reaching and important recommendations which would, by now, be helping to make Croydon a better, fairer place to live and work.

After five years, Fairbnb has a logo, but not much else

If only. In the event, quite the contrary has been true.

The commission struggled to capture the public’s imagination. A competition to engage the youth of Croydon, offering a £400 iPad as a prize, garnered a grand total of 10 entries.

In the end, the Fairness Commission produced a series of bland observations and recommendations which at the time were described by some less charitable commentators as “motherhood and apple pie” and “statements of the bleedin’ obvious”.

The Commission’s findings were widely regarded as underwhelming and not worth the public money which had been showered on Evans’ company.

But the Commission’s report was not completely without merit. There was at least one proposal which caught the imagination and which many thought might lead to something. That was “Fairbnb”, which suggested matching those who don’t have a roof over their head with homeowners who have a spare room which they might offer as accommodation.

It might have offered one small way of easing the serious housing crisis in Croydon.

Five years on, where is Fairbnb now?

Half-arsed and half-cock: the Fairbnb website is full of dummy copy, and not much else

The council showed some willing, and there exists a shiny website which explains that, “At the moment Fairbnb is operating only in Croydon, Lambeth and Islington…”, which, perhaps coincidentally, is one of the other London boroughs to have had a Fairness Commission, “… but it will be rolling out all over London.”

“Register today”, visitors to the website are entreated, with the offer of as much as £7,000 per year, tax-free, for the use of a double room in their home.

But the reality is that the website, and Fairbnb, does not seem to be functioning at all.

If you are interested in offering to be a host, and you want to learn more of the host vetting process, you encounter a page made up of dummy copy in Latin. Perhaps they were hoping Boris Johnson might take someone in?

The page of bios of Fairbnb’s “board members” is similarly incomplete, with a series of stock photographs, mostly of the same model, and again dummy copy. Their telephone contact number rings unanswered.

Surely the Labour-controlled Croydon Council website will shed more light on the matter?

After all, in Croydon Labour’s manifesto for the 2018 local elections they said that one of their achievements since being in office was that they had “introduced Fairbnb to the borough, a new initiative matching homeowners who have spare rooms with those in need of emergency accommodation”.

Fairbnb has twice been warned that it faced being struck-off. Note how the Companies House letter is addressed to Suffolk House – where The Campaign Company has its offices

It seems that the use of the word “introduced” in the Labour manifesto is only in a virtual sense…

On the council website there are news reports from August 2016 about “a social innovation in Croydon today”. There is also an advert for an “Ambitious for Croydon 2018-2022 Lead Officer”, stating, “There are a number of other initiatives we have developed including Fairbnb…”

But that’s it. Nothing more. Nada. Zilch.

Further investigations show that a Fairbnb CIC, a community interest company, has indeed been incorporated, in March 2018 – nearly three years after the Fairness Commission delivered its recommendations.

But by the directors’ own admission, the company is today all but dormant.

How Fairbnb director Nick Pecorelli’s profile appears on The Campaign Company website

According to Companies House records, Fairbnb CIC is now registered at an address in a business centre on Effra Road, Brixton, and has six directors, five of whom were registered in May 2019.

They include Bishop Clark, as well as Rowenna Davis, the Croydon school teacher and sometime leading figure in the “Blue Labour” movement, Hannah Miller, who for 16 years to 2014 was Croydon Council’s executive director for adult services, health and housing, and… David Evans, the Labour party’s new general secretary.

Fairbnb CIC is so inactive as a business entity that even in its relatively brief period of existence, it has already twice faced compulsory strike-off action from officials at Companies House, in June 2019 and February this year. There is nothing necessarily untoward about this – it is simply a reflection of how the company has failed to meet certain administrative functions required by law.

On both occasions, the company did enough to avoid being wiped from the official record.

The company’s most recent accounts, for the period to March 2019, were lodged with Companies House on February 27 this year. They include a scrawled, hand-written directors’ report, submitted by someone described as Nicholas Pecorelli.

“This year,” Pecorelli writes, “the company was not trading. We built a website, linked this in to a banking engine and engaged stakeholders, mainly councils, with a view to understanding how we can meet their homelessness needs.

“See Fairbnb.org.uk.”

Fairbnb’s latest directors’ annual report, as lodged with Companies House in February. Hardly inspiring confidence that Croydon’s housing crisis will be solved any time soon

And that was it, the sum total of the company directors’ annual report.

The accounts as filed showed the company has £10,939 in the bank, an amount barely touched in a year, and that there were no remunerations paid to directors. Which is nice.

It may be that all that “engaging” with “stakeholders” has failed to produce what Fairbnb needs most – money to fund and staff its operations. Although the job ad placed by Croydon four years ago, offering what appears to be a fixed-term contract to 2022, suggests that initially, at least, the intention was that this was to be an in-house operation.

An interesting aside is that in the official records, Nicholas Pecorelli gives as his address Suffolk House in Croydon. That just happens to be the very same building where Evans’s The Campaign Company has its offices.

Indeed, a quick search of Evans’s business’s website shows that among The Campaign Company’s “Associates” is Nick Pecorelli, “an experienced public speaker, speech writer and policy maker”. Pecorelli’s previous roles include as an adviser to Gordon Brown and as the Labour Party’s assistant general secretary.

“I love learning about and working with people’s motivations to come up with solutions that work for all,” Pecorelli is quoted as saying on The Campaign Company’s website.

Just a shame that, so far, Pecorelli, Evans and others involved with Croydon Council’s Fairness Commission have failed to make its one promising recommendation work for anyone at all. Though, maybe with that £200,000, it has managed to “work” for The Campaign Company.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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