Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, on the latest decision by decree from the council leader, and with a profile of the interim CEO who had a chequered career before joining Croydon
Before she was announced yesterday as the interim replacement for Croydon’s chief executive Jo Negrini, it is fair to say that Shifa Mustafa had risen without trace.
Senior staff at Fisher’s Folly, who are less convinced of her abilities as the council’s “executive director of place” than was Negrini, know Mustafa, disparagingly, as “Princess Shifa”.
Mustafa takes the helm of Croydon’s sinking ship not necessarily even with a full endorsement from all of the borough’s political leadership.
But Mustafa does have her own experience of six-figure pay-outs for failure so that at least should come in useful in the immediate aftermath of Negrini’s messier than necessary exit.
With council leader Tony Newman returned from the holiday he had taken despite the borough being in the middle of a clusterfuck of crises, a meeting of the Town Hall’s appointments committee was hurriedly arranged yesterday morning.
Due to attend were six senior councillors – four Labour and two Conservatives: Newman as chair, Alison Butler, his deputy leader, Simon Hall, the cabinet’s finance “guru”, Alisa Flemming, and the Tories Jason Perry and Tim Pollard.
Most of the meeting was held under the secret “Part B” agenda, using behind-closed-doors Town Hall rules, and there is no record available even of what was to be discussed. Sources confirm that a lavish settlement for Negrini and the choice of her temporary replacement were the substantive issues.
It is also understood that the council’s actions were agreed only by a majority of the committee, and not unanimously.
Before it was sent, Newman had no discussion on the matter outside the appointments meeting, not even with most of the members of his hand-picked council cabinet never mind the rest of the Town Hall Labour group.
“It was if he was deliberately making the case for a more democratic system of running the council,” one Katharine Street wag noted, referring to the campaign for a democratically elected mayor.
Given the council’s dire straits financially, with £1.5billion debts and a coronavirus-sized hole in its operating budget, Negrini’s departure as chief exec had become a matter of not “if”, but “when?” And also, “how much?”
As first reported by Inside Croydon, even senior council directors are admitting the council is on the brink of going bust, with finance director Lisa Taylor telling Tuesday night’s scrutiny committee that the situation now is much worse than it was even two months ago. Only a bail-out from central government can resolve the immediate cash crisis.
But what is of concern to senior Labour and Tory councillors is the way in which Mustafa – who has, at best, a chequered record in local government – has been hurriedly installed as interim CEO.
“I was strongly of the view that we needed an interim CEO appointed from external candidates,” one Katharine Street source said.
“There’s not the experience around the executive leadership table suited for the situation we’re in now.”
Another said, “It’s not exactly a deep talent pool to choose from internally.”
Others were concerned that any executive director who had been appointed by Negrini, but Mustafa in particular, are simply too closely associated with the departing CEO, and their policies, to be able to distance themselves from the mistakes of the past and come up with suitably disinterested decisions.
Even the manner of yesterday’s appointments committee meeting carried with it concerns over the absence of good governance and arm’s-length decision-making. “It is pretty clear that there must have been a catastrophic breakdown in relationships between Newman and his top team with the chief executive,” one source said.
“Given that, there were clearly serious conflicts of interest in having Newman, Butler and Hall taking the decisions that they did.”
When Jo Negrini was promoted to the chief executive’s job in October 2016, it was Shifa Mustafa who she chose to replace herself. Mustafa arrived as a senior London borough executive, but one who had not held down a permanent job since she left Waltham Forest in August 2014 with a £160,000 pay-off (sound familiar? More of that shortly…).
Mustafa’s responsibilities as executive director of place have included such triumphs as overseeing the Fairfield Halls refurbishment (at least £13million overbudget and 15 months late), the CPO and redevelopment of the town centre by Westfield (now not happening) and the bungled and costly Brick by Brick housing scheme. None of which will fill anyone with confidence that Newman has placed the borough in a safe pair of hands.
Mustafa will also have some work to do to win over the council’s increasingly demoralised staff.
With 15 per cent cuts being applied and more than 400 jobs likely to go, workers at Fisher’s Folly will be watching carefully to see, when people begin to return to the office, whether Mustafa resumes her pre-covid practice of taking every Friday off, apparently to spend time in her garden for the benefit of her mental health.
According to the most recent figures available from the evermore secretive council, four-day-a-week Mustafa is on a salary and pension package of £176,103 – or more than eight times greater than what’s paid to the average Croydon Council employee, who are usually expected to work at least five days a week.
When Mustafa arrived in Croydon, the council propaganda department lauded her as having overseen “a number” (what was it? One? Two?) of regeneration projects, “…including the redevelopment of Walthamstow town centre and the delivery of the borough’s first cinema. She also led an award-winning facelift improvement scheme for the borough’s high street”. If only Mustafa had managed to do something similar during her time in Croydon so far.
Newman, for his part, endorsed her recruitment at the time by saying, “Shifa’s appointment completes a strong, new senior leadership team at the council and I’m confident they are the right people to deliver our ambitious plans for Croydon and its residents.”
Within a year, Ofsted had delivered its damning report on failing Croydon’s children’s services, while a few months later the alarm bells began ringing over the multi-million-pound cost overruns at the Fairfield Halls and New Addington Leisure Centre (both falling under Mustafa’s responsibility), and by February 2019, even Westfield had given up the pretence that they would ever be carrying out their redevelopment of the town centre.
Before joining Croydon, Mustafa had spent a brief time working in a temporary capacity at Kingston, following her hurried departure from Waltham Forest, were in the phrase favoured by Private Eye, “Inspector Knacker” had been called in to investigate a financial scandal.
It was a tale of negligent local authority accounting and missing paperwork supposedly charting the use of millions of pounds of government grants. At least £180,000 was lost without trace. “Years later, it remains unclear what, if anything, was achieved with the money or where much of it ended up,” Lord Gnome wrote five years ago, in a phrase which may chime with Inside Croydon’s loyal reader.
“Late last year,” the Eye reported, “the senior officer with responsibility for the initiative, deputy chief exec Shifa Mustafa, left the council with a pay-off of £140,000.”
Of course, none of that was mentioned in Croydon Council’s press release to announce her appointment here.
Nor was there any mention of how Mustafa’s previous employers had been convicted in court for breaking health and safety laws after mismanagement of asbestos at Waltham Forest Town Hall. In Croydon, the principal reason offered for the delays and cost overruns at the Fairfield Halls was the apparent surprise discovery (in a 1950s-designed and 1960s-built building, no less) of… asbestos.
And who was the senior official at Waltham Forest responsible for briefing the council cabinet on the handling of the asbestos issues, who only ever did so orally, without written reports? None other than Shifa Mustafa.
Croydon’s cabinet members might want to insist that the interim CEO starts coming in on Fridays, if only to keep her paperwork up to date…
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