EXCLUSIVE: Council staff are angry at the high-handed and dismissive manner in which they are being dealt with by the chief exec, while ‘award-winning’ Gateway Services face severe cuts. WALTER CRONXITE reports
As the council’s CEO, Jo Negrini has spent most of the past fortnight messing with the terms and conditions of the lives of hundreds of staff who have been told they are to lose their jobs. But yesterday Negrini announced that “… we are not messing with anyone’s Ts and Cs” when it comes to herself and her generously remunerated executive director colleagues.
Negrini’s short-tempered response was to a question from a council worker who asked why neither she nor any other senior members of her leadership team had set an example and taken a cut to their six-figure salaries and gilt-edged pension pots while the rest of the council faced 15 per cent budget cuts.
Many among the estimated 800 staff who had logged-in for the latest briefing on the council’s self-inflicted financial crisis were made even angrier by this latest nadir in the chief exec’s shambolic four-year reign over the council.
The dire insensitivity of Negrini’s comment was one of a series of low points during a staff briefing which those who endured it described as “a car-crash from beginning to end”.
As one experienced and senior council manager said, “Yet again, it’s a case of lions led by donkeys.”
Another said, “Morale is on the floor. Sessions like this do not help.”
A Katharine Street source described the situation as “turmoil”.
The council’s leadership’s relationship with the unions at Fisher’s Folly is severly strained, with more than 400 jobs expected to go as Negrini tries to balance the books after the hugely indebted council spent £62million to deal with the first two months of the coronavirus crisis.
Promises from central government to make good on local authorities’ covid-19 crisis spending have yet to be made good.
But as has been well-established, Croydon was already deeply mired in financial problems before the pandemic lockdown, failing resilience tests from CIPFA, the accountancy professional body, which suggested that the council might be suffering from “poor governance”.
Negrini herself even gave interviews six months ago where such issues were acknowledged, and she has also admitted more recently that a process of cutting council staff began at the start of 2020.
Negrini’s performance in yesterday’s virtual briefing did nothing to inspire staff with renewed confidence that she or her closest colleagues are the people to fix the problems.
“Everyone by now understands the narrative of the damage that 10 years of austerity cuts has done to local councils,” said one worker. “And of course that has made things tough – but we’ve been through three ‘reorganisations’ at the council in that time, shedding frontline staff each time. But the number of executive directors never seems to decrease, and nor do their salaries.
“Most other London boroughs, including Labour-led councils, seem to have managed somehow through austerity without the huge debts or the dangerously depleted reserves that have happened in Croydon since Jo was put in charge.”
Workers and some of their union reps are particularly angry at the way in which the jobs being cut now affect people who have worked throughout the covid-19 crisis to keep providing council services, often in difficult circumstances and while helping some of the borough’s most vulnerable.
Yet not a single executive director position is actually being cut as a consequence of Negrini’s “reorganisation”. Rob Henderson, the children’s, families and education exec director who Inside Croydon revealed yesterday is leaving Croydon, is almost certain to be replaced in the £150,000-plus role.
For her part, Negrini is paid more than £220,000 per year, excluding any returning officer fees. It means that she earns more in one month than some of the council’s staff are paid in a year. Each executive director in her leadership team also gets the support of an executive officer to act as their personal assistant; Negrini regards herself as so important that she has two assistants helping to run her office.
There is to be a little shuffling and sleight of hand over some senior positions, however.
Hazel Simmonds, who was appointed in November 2018 as head of the council’s Gateway Services (or “localities and resident pathway” as the council has pompously renamed the department), has had her substantive role “deleted”, but has immediately been taken back on a two-year fixed-term contract. Whether this delivers any real savings seems unlikely, but it is sure to be dressed up as the reduction of an exec director role.
It appears that Gateway Services staff are suffering some of the deepest cuts at the council. The “award-winning” department has developed an early-intervention approach to avoid people on Universal Credit being rendered homeless because of changes to the benefits system, provided a support hub for rough sleepers and overseen the introduction of welfare and food hubs – “Food Stops”. All of which is now under threat.
“Hazel will have special responsibility for ‘localities’, which is Jo’s ‘Big Idea’,” said a staffer at yesterday’s meeting. “More local hubs, less centralisation, and using the voluntary sector more to meet demand for council services. Effectively, you’re be paying your Council Tax to meet Jo’s salary for services that she’s no longer delivering.”
The council’s decentralisation process has been accelerated by covid-19, since Fisher’s Folly, the council offices built by the previous Tory administration at a cost of £150million, is not fit for purpose. Open-plan offices and hot-desking are not possible in the post-coronavirus “new normal”, and Negrini reckons only one-third of what’s left of the council staff can be accommodated there in future.
One moment during the briefing that caused laughter among many of those watching was when Negrini’s close colleague, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, the former borough solicitor who the CEO made exec director of resources, said that she had “worked hard” to keep deletions of posts to those jobs which were currently vacant.
“We had to laugh,” said one observer. “It’s just absurd: those posts were only vacant because they started a recruitment freeze at the back-end of last year.”
The briefing attracted lots of questions from staff about the council’s seemingly reckless capital spending on the likes of the Croydon Park Hotel (£30million, and now closed for business), the Colonnades (which is supposed to deliver £150,000 a year in income to the council, but which had to be closed in March), and Brick by Brick (£260million of borrowing, plus £36million of new bail-outs this year).
“Jo tried to defend all of this robustly, but she got in a mess over the figures. She needed Shifa [Mustafa, the exec director, “Place”] to help her out.”
When Negrini was asked about the council’s financial problems that existed before covid, she said that BBC London’s televised report last week was incorrect. Yet the BBC got its figures from government sources, the council itself and CIPFA, the local authorities’ finance professional body.
“We know who we believe,” one council worker said.
“Hundreds of staff are losing their jobs, yet for Negrini it is all a matter of defending her reputation.
“It’s almost as if she’s trying to deny what is going on around her on her watch.”
Indeed, more than five minutes of the 80-minute online session was devoted by Negrini to dismissing reports in Inside Croydon.
Negrini is reputed to have said, “They never liked me even before I came here.” Which is just a tad self-centred, since no one in Croydon had heard of Jo Negrini before she arrived as the self-declared “regeneration practitioner” in 2014.
“She mentioned that the council had not had to issue a Section 114 notice to declare that we’re broke. Yet everyone knows that’s only because the government couldn’t handle a clutch of councils going broke during lockdown, and so agreed to ease the rules. But everything that has been done here since May have been the exact same measures that would have been taken if a Section 114 notice had been issued.
“It seems that she doesn’t like it when staff brief against her.
“It has not occurred to her to ask why staff are briefing against her.”
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