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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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