EXCLUSIVE: Borough to get its third CEO in two weeks, as government parachutes in a ‘safe pair of hands’ on Newman’s Croydon clique.
By STEVEN DOWNES
A hastily arranged meeting of Croydon Council’s appointments committee will convene this morning to rubber-stamp the appointment of Katherine Kerswell as the interim chief executive of the authority.
Kerswell, who is expected to take up her duties at Fisher’s Folly on Monday, will thus become the third CEO in the space of a fortnight at the crisis-hit council.
Shifa Mustafa, the Croydon exec director who was hurriedly installed by the council leadership as the interim replacement for Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, will return to her planning and development duties after a period in charge briefer than Chris Cowdrey’s time as England cricket captain.
Kerswell is understood to have been imposed on council leader Tony Newman and the cabal in charge of the Labour-run council by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as a pre-condition of any financial bailout for Croydon, which is £1.5billion in debt and is wrestling with a covid budget overspend of more than £60million.
The Local Government Association is also understood to have played a part in recruiting Kerswell for a job which many might regard as a poisoned chalice. The LGA yesterday would not deny that they have worked on finding a temporary replacement for Negrini, a spokesperson saying only, “The LGA doesn’t ever comment on individual councils but I can confirm that we are supporting Croydon as part of our sector-led improvement work.”
By parachuting in Kerswell to Croydon’s crisis-hit council, the MHCLG has dealt a massive blow to Newman’s leadership, as well as issuing a vote of no confidence in his appointment of Mustafa as interim and the grandiosely titled “executive leadership team” assembled by Negrini.
In effect, it is a government takeover of Newman’s spendthrift council.
This morning, a Katharine Street source denied that the road outside the Town Hall was to be renamed Katherine Street, but they did say, “Newman must really consider his own position now – 21,000 people have signed a petition saying that they want a different, more accountable leadership in the council, local polls say he is not up to the job, and now the government has delivered this vote of no confidence in his judgement.
“It’s a wonder he’s been allowed to hang on this long.”
Negrini departed the top job in Croydon at the end of last month amid acrimony, as Inside Croydon revealed she had achieved a pay-off of around £420,000 after four years in charge that had ended in abject failure.
Kerswell will arrive with a “restructuring process” already well underway, but seemingly as badly managed as many of the projects run under Negrini, with more than 400 council staff likely to lose their jobs. What were expected to be swingeing 15 per cent spending cuts across all council services now look likely to be 20 per cent cuts.
After a 25-year career in local government and senior Whitehall posts, Kerswell is regarded as a “safe pair of hands” and is something of a troubleshooter, with experience working at other local authorities which have gone bust (though not on her watch: she was in charge at Northamptonshire from 2007 to 2010). The Local Government Chronicle described Kerswell as “one of the country’s most experienced chiefs”.
Her most recent position was as the interim CEO at Nottingham City Council, a post she took up in April in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which meant that she never actually visited her office nor met most of her staff in person.
She has also worked as an interim chief exec at Newham, so will be well aware of Negrini’s reputation. Croydon will be the seventh local authority where Kerswell has worked as CEO, her personal profile stating that she has “… experience in both county and urban government across England [including] achieving major regeneration and development schemes.”
Kerswell , 57, also worked for three years as the health services director for Crapita, and was the first director general in the Cabinet Office to have responsibility for civil service reform.
According to her own CV, she also has “experience of significant transformational change in national government (including Department for Education and Home Office)”. Which could come in handy.
Her Whitehall profile page states, “Katherine has represented local government on a number of government and national commissions, and has written and spoken extensively on public sector reform, leadership and change management.”
The council appointments committee, due to start at 10.30am, was only scheduled late in the day yesterday. The five senior Croydon councillors – Newman and two Labour colleagues, plus two Tory councillors – will be expected to approve Kerswell’s salary package, likely to see her paid pro rata at the same rate that Negrini received – around £188,000 per year.
It also seems likely that Kerswell will work in Croydon until a permanent replacement for Negrini can be appointed, which could see her working for the council probably until early 2021.
In an interview with the Local Government Chronicle published in June about her time with Nottingham (the city’s permanent CEO took up his post last month), Kerswell said, “I think interims have a challenge anyway coming in as a temporary person, owning a role that needs to have weight and continuity in the messages you are giving.
“The last thing you want is people saying, ‘I’m not going to listen to her because she is not going to be around very long’. You have to say, ‘This is it, this is the decision, we’re all moving forward’.
“You must be really careful you’re not just saying, ‘This is how I do things, it will be done like this’. You can’t come with preconceptions into these roles – you really have to learn and understand the culture and take stock of what they really want you to do.”
And although she was talking about her time working for Nottingham (if not in Nottingham because of the covid lockdown), Kerswell could well have been speaking about Croydon when she said, “We are busy people with an agenda to get through. The response and recovery to covid has laid an additional enormous workload on people. You can’t just cobble this together.
“There is a definite job to be done to lead the organisation through this very difficult period we’ve got.”
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