Croydon In Crisis: Council in disarray as Negrini quits

EXCLUSIVE: Unconfirmed reports suggest that the borough’s £220,000 pa chief exec is about to announce her resignation, leaving behind a trail of calamity as the Town Hall axes at least 400 jobs. By STEVEN DOWNES

Jo Negrini: self-styled ‘regeneration practitioner’ and an honorary Fellow of RIBA, but not a very good council CEO

Jo Negrini, Croydon Council’s chief executive, is expected to leave her job at the end of September.

A significant announcement had been expected from Fisher’s Folly today regarding the council official’s departure, though nothing had been issued by the time of publication. The council’s press office made no denial of Negrini’s departure when questioned by Inside Croydon today.

Officially, Negrini is on annual leave until September 2, and sources – both within and outside Croydon – suggest that she may now never actually return to her office.

If her exit is confirmed, Negrini will leave behind a local authority in turmoil, with debts of £1.5billion and rising, a huge hole in this year’s budgets caused by additional spending on coronavirus emergency measures, and a redundancy consultation affecting hundreds of staff which is not due to be complete until tomorrow.

Symbolic of the rudderless nature of the council at this time of crisis, not only is the chief executive away from her desk this week, but the council leader, Tony Newman (£54,000 in allowances for his part-time position), is also off with his bucket and spade on his holidays.

It means that the borough’s elected officials are unlikely to engage in any meaningful succession planning urgently.

There was no immediate suggestion that Newman has sacked Negrini. That would be far too “decisive” for Croydon’s so-called “strong leader”.

Indeed, as long as Negrini is in post, it provides Newman with a degree of political “cover” from the mounting criticisms of the way in which the local authority has been run on his watch.

Tony Newman: in a crisis, he’s gone off on holiday

As one senior council source said this afternoon, “Essentially, Tony and Jo have been a united front on the finances. It’s all the fault of 10 years of Tory austerity compounded by the covid crisis. They are not responsible for any of the mess we’re in, oh no.

“But it is starting to dawn on other councillors that this is a really serious situation, and so it became either Tony or Jo… One of them had to go.”

The departure of Negrini, however, would leave Newman’s own position within the Town Hall Labour group more vulnerable. A group of residents’ associations, one of the borough’s MPs and even members of Croydon South Constituency Labour Party are expected within weeks to deliver a petition with more than 15,000 signatures to trigger a borough-wide referendum on the issue of a democratically elected mayor to replace the “strong leader”, and therefore Newman.

Thus, Negrini’s exit from the Croydon scene may not be the last.

As first reported by Inside Croydon in May, the covid-19 crisis has seen the council spend £62million that the borough doesn’t have. Negrini has overseen the start of a “restructuring”, involving 15 per cent cuts to budgets, and more than 400 council jobs axed, including whole departments.

But Negrini has refused to countenance either her or any of her other executive directors – all of whom earn £150,000 per year or more – from taking voluntary wage cuts to help save some of their less-well-paid colleagues from losing their jobs.

Her departure will at least offer any successor an immediate saving of around £250,000 per year – Negrini’s salary and pension plus the fees she receives as returning officer, as well as her generous expenses.

Australian-born Negrini’s legacy in Croydon is likely to be regarded as one of failure.

She arrived at Fisher’s Folly in January 2014 as a self-styled “regeneration practitioner” to take up the job of “director of place”, in charge of planning and development. When recruited, the Town Hall was under the control of the Conservatives and Mike Fisher.

Westfield Stratford: Negrini worked closely with the developers when she worked for Newham

Negrini’s appointment had followed a rapid turnover of people in that post, and her arrival came soon after the announcement of plans for the billion-pound-plus Westfield development in the town centre.

Negrini’s previous job was in Newham, and it included working with the Aussie-owned Westfield on their shiny new shopping mall beside the Olympic Park at Stratford. There was a strong suggestion at the time that her appointment in Croydon was to placate the developers, putting someone in place who had shown they could work with them.

The interim chief executive at that time was Nathan Elvery, who in his years in Croydon had a well-earned reputation for implementing savage job cuts and for a casual disregard for the rules on procurement (though two internal investigations cleared Elvery of any wrong-doing over a schools bus contract).

Elvery’s management style was described as “death by PowerPoint”, and Negrini was to show a similar liking to her boss for empty slogans and vacuous soundbytes.

When she was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Institution of British Architects – despite her lack of any architectural qualifications – it was seen by some to demonstrate that her sympathies lay with profit-hungry developers and architects who wanted a chunk of Croydon real estate, rather than the Council Tax-payers and local businesses who paid her wages.

Negrini loved flying off to conferences in the South of France and rubbing shoulders with developers and fat cats. She was less keen on dealing with the nitty-gritty of the council

When Elvery made the surprise announcement in 2016 that he was quitting Croydon, Newman and the now Labour-controlled Town Hall had a clear opportunity to make a clean break with the previous Tory administration’s appointments, and perhaps promote someone from within, or recruit from elsewhere, with an outlook more sympathetic to their policies and party.

Instead, Newman promoted Negrini, opting for what he described as “continuity”.

In her time in planning, Negrini had overseen the application of a policy which seemed to encourage developers to demolish Croydon’s suburban houses and replace them with an array of generally ugly blocks of flats, altering the character of entire neighbourhoods. And she also introduced Brick by Brick, a council development vehicle intended to get around Right-to-Buy rules, putting her old buddy from her time at Lambeth and Newham, Colm Lacey, in charge.

Negrini’s council-owned housing developer has not only cost Croydon hundreds of millions of pounds in additional borrowing, but has been a source of constant controversy and proved immensely unpopular with existing residents who have suffered irreversible damage to their neighbourhoods, while managing to deliver just three purpose-built council homes in its first five years.

Negrini’s policies on housing and Brick by Brick drew protests to the steps of the Town Hall

Brick by Brick’s schemes, including the Fairfield Halls refurbishment (at least £13million over-budget and delivered, incomplete, 15 months late), have been marked by costly overruns and delays, with Lacey’s blundering leadership of the firm prompting questions about Negrini’s judgement in appointing her old mate. With Negrini gone from Fisher’s Folly, Lacey’s own position may be more vulnerable.

Yet the biggest black mark on Negrini’s copybook during her time in charge at Croydon was the scandal over the borough’s children’s services, where so many social worker jobs had been axed and recruitment was so poor that, in 2017, Ofsted inspectors pronounced that the lives of children and young adults in the care of the council were at risk.

It took two and a half years, and an extra £25million spent on recruiting and equipment, before Ofsted was prepared to take the children’s services department out of special measures with a “Good” rating earlier this year.

“I’m surprised she’s stayed in Croydon so long,” said a Katharine Street source who worked with Negrini when she started in the borough.

“Her ambitions have always far outstripped her abilities.

“I guess she felt that she could not leave while one of her departments was rated as ‘Inadequate’.

“That ‘Good’ rating came in March, six months ago – it’s possible that’s when she handed in her notice.”

Negrini’s judgement over some of the senior appointments she has made to her “executive leadership team” – or what insiders described as empire-building, seeing the borough having 20 employees paid six-figure salaries – have raised similar questions to those levelled over the promotion of Lacey.

Jacqueline Harris-Baker: trained as a lawyer, given director of resources job

Barbara Peacock, Negrini’s first choice to fix the children’s services crisis, lasted barely two years before she was “reorganised” out of the council after further Ofsted update reports critical of the council’s ineffectual leadership.

And then, in a sure sign of an organisation where things are not well-run, a succession of better-regarded executives have recently begun making their way through the Fisher’s Folly exit door.

Rob Henderson, Peacock’s replacement and someone widely credited with pulling the children’s department out of the mire, leaves Croydon at the end of this month. But the first cracks in the council’s rocky finances might be traced back to December 2018, when Richard Simpson, the respected finance director, quit without having another job to go to.

Negrini replaced him not with someone with extensive local authority finance experience, but with her close colleague, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, who was previously the Borough Solicitor.

Although now effectively Negrini’s No2 at Fisher’s Folly, Harris-Baker’s lack of experience of broader council management – and her closeness to the CEO – are thought to put her out of the running for the top job.

That may go, on an interim basis at first, to Guy van Dichele, the “executive director health, wellbeing and adults”, a department that has borne the brunt of the strain created by coronavirus.

As a source inside the council said today, “They just put Guy in charge of almost half the council, in a temporary move following Rob Henderson’s decision to leave. They might as well go the whole hog now and put him in charge of the lot.”

Tipped for the top: Croydon’s adult care and health services exec director Guy van Dichele

Negrini’s sometimes short fuse and arrogant demeanour will have aggravated many of her management problems, and created new ones.

When she was asked by a respected property journalist what her “Plan B” might be for the unredeveloped Whitgift Centre and Centrale, Negrini bit back, “We’re not stupid.”

She’s been looking a lot less clever lately.

If Negrini came to Croydon to secure the town centre redevelopment project, then the moment that Westfield’s new, French owners announced in February 2019 that they were shelving their Croydon plans, her days in the CEO’s job were surely numbered.

More recently, she has been accused of “cowardice” by members of council staff for the manner in which she has handled the job cuts.

She won over few new fans among staff who are worried for their jobs and livelihoods when she snapped back at an employee’s question about executives taking a voluntary cut to their six-figure salaries. “We’re not altering anyone’s Ts & Cs,” said Negrini, who in her first two years as CEO had managed to secure herself a £40,000 hike to her already generous pay.

Many of Negrini’s stunts and initiatives had already alienated the council’s staff, and elected councillors, too, who saw her as aloof and more interested in spending time writing self-promoting articles than dealing with the day-to-day concerns of the borough, its residents and businesses, even in the midst of the pandemic.

“She spent time last week interviewing for the council’s graduate trainee scheme,” a council source said.

“Not a good look when you’re making 400 staff redundant.”

For many, the ridiculously pretentious 81-quid-a-ticket “On The Buses and canapés” guided tour of a town centre she had helped to blight during her six years in Croydon epitomised Negrini’s vanity and lack of self-awareness.

There had been rumours for some months that Negrini may have been seeking “fresh challenges”. The suggestion now is that she has yet to find another position.

But with all those business cards from well-connected property developers she must have collected on her annual trip (at council expense) to the MIPIM conference in the South of France, and with all her mates at RIBA, it surely won’t be long before some come banging on her door with offers of lucrative “consultancies”.

Won’t it?


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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
This entry was posted in Barbara Peacock, Brick by Brick, Children's Services, Colm Lacey, Croydon Council, Guy van Dichele, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, Jo Negrini, Planning, Richard Simpson, Robert Henderson, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Croydon In Crisis: Council in disarray as Negrini quits

  1. Grief! Inside Croydon has the scoop of the century. Congrats. What really p*** me off was the constant self-congratulation while chaos reigned No one comes out of this well – the Tories appolinted her. Labour promoted her without any proper process. Now we’re saddled with debt. Please reprint her offensive email she sent round after her elevation, something like – “who would have thought it, me promoted on a £200k salary. Lucky, lucky me! Or something like that.

  2. Wow… well done!
    We are in for an interesting time, whoopee!

    My feeling is that this is but the beginning a council cataclysm… a real clean out and change of director and direction.

    I hope so, anyhow.

  3. Alfred Ayisi says:

    Please can you change the default picture for this article? I’ve shared it and it’s unfairly associating the only ethnic minority pictured in this article with the allegations described. Why is it? This is misleading your readers.

    • No. It is out of our control. And no, we are certainly not misleading anyone. Jacqueline Harris-Baker is as much to blame for this shit storm as many of the other exec directors who have allowed matters to get out of control: she’s been in charge of the council finances since January 2019.

      Images on social media platforms – Twatter – are auto-generated. They use something called an “algorithm”, you may have heard of them. It is less than ideal, but they tend to pick a pic from an article that has not been published before.

  4. David Roe says:

    Actually it was Labour that appointed her as Chief Executive. She would have been interviewed by Tony himself. I doubt the Tory councillors had any involvement in her appointment as Director. I any case this was long overdue.

    • Actually, she started work at Croydon Council in January 2014. Four months before Labour took control of the Town Hall from the Tories.

      >>>
      She arrived at Fisher’s Folly in January 2014 as a self-styled “regeneration practitioner” to take up the job of “director of place”.
      <<< And in 2016, it was Newman who promoted her to CEO, way beyond her competence. >>>
      Instead, Newman promoted Negrini, opting for what he described as “continuity”.
      <<< It's all there in the report above, Dave. If only you'd bother to read it.

  5. derekthrower says:

    Farewell Brick by Brick. The axe is about to fall.

    • Dan Maertens says:

      They might need to raise a s80 Demolition Notice first, but it’ll only mean a slight delay of 6 weeks. I can provide a link to the form if they need it …………

  6. Sebastian Tillinger says:

    The new Croydon CEO must NOT be selected from within the council – it will just be history repeating itself!

    It was Tony Newman who had the lazy and ill-advised idea to put Jo Negrini as chief executive despite her never running a Council before.

    What’s clear is that the residents of Croydon and the hard working employees of the Council expect so much more from the executive management of the council.

    And Tony Newman should be disallowed from any involvement in selecting the new Council CEO. Time after time he makes poorly judged decisions or exerts undue influence that diminishes our borough’s standing.

    A committee of young councillors selected from all parties should be convened to have a role in guiding the new CEO selection, after the net has been cast far and wide OUTSIDE OF CROYDON. It is essential Croydon gets this right.

    And I suggest these ridiculous games of musical chairs within the executive team stops and Harris-Baker goes back to the role she was employed by Croydon Council to undertake (Borough Solicitor) or she considers her position too.

    • David Roe says:

      Completely agree! To ensure political impartiality Councillors should not be involved in any senior appointments.

      • Weatherdude says:

        What would be wrong in appointing a homegrown croydonite who understands the borough and the issues it faces day in day out?

  7. Henry321@btinternet.com says:

    Looks like the council chief Executive seem to forget what public sector is really about.
    Delivering public services and in a sustainable manner of cost.
    And with that level of gigantic debt and no way of crawling out of it – it can be disheartened to feel you are part of something great – spending beyond once means never cool.
    Never justify debt unless you can make it into a credit.
    She has to Go.No way out for the council.

    Credit to insidecroydon for investigative journalism.

  8. Ken says:

    “Regeneration practitioner”? Isn’t that what Dr Who does?

  9. Patricia Tompkins says:

    Approximately 25 to 30 years ago I worked for the council as a carer.
    I saw nothing but welfare cutbacks and they were employing carers from private agencies then and now, which of course cost far more than their own carer’s.
    over the years I have seen this council and many others spend money irresponsibly over and over again so if they’re in debt now they have no one to blame but themselves and of course it’s the ordinary working folk who will end up paying for it all!!!

  10. Carrie Low says:

    Surely this whole situation should be investigated by independent auditors??

    Jo Negrini has been at 2 other councils that have been investigated for much the same thing! She should be made to repay the wasted money and her huge expenses.

    Who’s the fool that employed her and questions nothing?

    • Sebastian Tillinger says:

      In answer to your last question: Tony Newman

      • Err, well no, not really.

        Negrini was first employed by Croydon as ‘Executive Director-Place’ in early 2014 … when the Conservatives were in charge of the Council … Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London … and Gavin Barwell the MP for Croydon Central.

        (Labour, or rather Tony Newman only took control of the Council in May of that year)

        https://insidecroydon.com/2013/11/26/croydon-appoints-negrini-as-fifth-planning-chief-in-two-years/

        At the time Councillor Jason Perry (Conservative), the Council’s then-cabinet member for Planning Regeneration and Transport is quoted as saying: “This is a hugely exciting time to be working here and we want someone who will be as ambitious for our borough and our residents as we are. Jo’s background and past experience make her the ideal person to be holding the reins as Croydon embarks on its journey of regeneration.”

        So what does Cllr Perry and his Conservative colleagues think now?

        Should not Negrini forfeit any payout (if there is one) and be held to account for the damage that has been caused on her watch, both to the ‘places’ of Croydon and the people who live there?

  11. Tom Tannion says:

    Good article – thank you for your service.
    Sadly. there are too many vested interests and ‘snouts in the trough’ for any meaningful change to take place.
    I fear that things will have to get a lot worse before any real change is effected.

  12. Richard Tate says:

    Well done Inside Croydon! Doing a better job of protecting the Croydon tax payer then those paid to actually safeguard the borough.

    Now Labour Party needs to make sure her settlement isn’t more than a disciplinary action would have cost. Because that’s what should have happened.

    • Sebastian Tillinger says:

      And Jo Negrini and Tony Newman instructed the Council’s press department to blacklist Inside Croydon from all the council’s official press releases…..

      Anyone who’s in public office, elected or salaried, has no right to be in that position if they do anything to slow public debate or commentary on what they, themselves are doing.

      I’ve said this all along: Croydon is capable of getting much better than these two.

  13. Lloyd Dwyer says:

    It’s a House Of Cards collapsing in front of our eyes and the dealers are scampering away with personal coffers full at the expense of the less fortunate council and genuinely hard working workers and the population in general. I mourn for the town I live in. Is there any hope for Croydon? Someone please cheer me up and give me hope.

  14. Anna says:

    There are probably some directors in that council that got their jobs on a political appointment basis and not fit for the role!These staff members need to resign too.

  15. I wonder what the job descriptions are for the CE and the 20 or so people on 6 figure salariies? The Council seems to have become a quasi state.

  16. Ian Ross says:

    Cronyism perpetuates mediocrity, protectionism and nepotism. Lack of real accountability has allowed this mess to grow.
    For the huge salaries being paid, there is no reason not to attract the very best. In the commercial real world this rabble would been outed long since.
    Brick by Brick is a particular abomination that has been allowed to carry on losing money whilst, as mentioned many times, has blighted the region with ugly, utilitarian blocks of flats.

  17. Everlyn says:

    Croydon council Executives offer very poor value for money. They should reapply for their jobs.
    The buck stops with the CEO.

  18. Kathy Malik says:

    Jo Negrini should be thoroughly ashamed of her lack of achievements whilst at the helm of running the borough. Look at the filthy unkempt condition of the streets. Who is ultimately responsible for this? Most residents hang their heads in shame at how dirty Croydon has become during her tenure.

    I hope the next CEO is competent and up to the job and takes pride in their work.

    • Ian Ross says:

      Don’t bank on it, Kathy. Those who appointed Negrini and kept her there are the true villains but with no accountability there’s no reason to expect better.
      And for sure, Croydon is a disgrace. Still, we have nice road blocks and colourful (formerly zebra) crossings. Oh, and traffic wardens on scooters ticketing for petty parking “offences” with an easy getaway while streets elsewhere are blocked by taxis, Ubers etc. Let’s not forget the new “bus gate’ on Auckland Road which allows only (empty) busses to and fro. However, the clever camera system has allowed the cost to be recouped by ripping “offenders” off for using the roads they pay for. It’s actually possible to be fined twice in les than 20 yards for using the bus gate then entering a “pedestrian zone” which coincides with school open and finish times, despite there being no school since the lockdown over 5 months ago. I would know. £65. Kerching.
      Funny old world……

  19. Josie Megan says:

    Losing the all important much needed Westfield development project, the council’s bungling over it – just about lit the fuse beneath Croydon’s economic future.
    The place has more retail closures by the day.

    The CEO and Executuve directors clearly failed the borough.

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