Housing correspondent BARRATT HOLMES on claims that the report on the council’s loss-making house-builders ‘has been nobbled from the start’
A pledge by the council leader this week that Brick by Brick would be subject to an independent review has been described as “an empty promise”.
The promise of an independent review of the controversial, council-owned housing firm has been dismissed because the terms of reference for the review are to be set by Shifa Mustafa – Croydon Council’s “executive director place”, who has been in charge of loss-making Brick by Brick since October 2016.
Indeed, until two weeks ago, Mustafa was even on the board of directors of Brick by Brick.
Tony Newman made the promise of an independent review at Monday night’s cabinet meeting to discuss his council’s emergency budget, a set of measures intended to impress Whitehall and so win their permission to allow Croydon to borrow £22million from its capital fund.
Among the measures included in the emergency budget is a strategic review of the council’s various companies.
Paragraph 9 of the emergency budget report states, “A review of all companies that are in the Croydon group and their relationship with the council needs to be understood to ensure they remain fit for purpose and that the risk profile they present for the council is fully understood and acceptable both individually and in total.”
The report lists Brick by Brick among those entities up for review.
Just the sort of thing to reassure the mandarins in Whitehall about Croydon’s seriousness in managing its resources. So far, so good, you may think.
Importantly, Para 9.2 of the report also states, “Cabinet is asked to agree that such a review be undertaken and that authority to scope the precise terms of the review is delegated to the executive director of place, with a report to be brought back to Cabinet and Full Council.”
The exec director of place is Mustafa, appointed to her £176,000 per year, four-day-a-week role four years ago by Jo Negrini, who had come up with the Brick by Brick model before being promoted to become the council’s CEO.
A Katharine Street source said today, “Having Shifa set the terms of reference for the review of Brick by Brick is a classic case of letting her mark her own homework.”
Negrini has been described by council insiders as having been particularly protective against criticism of Brick by Brick and its managing director, another of her appointees, Colm Lacy, a former council director and a colleague of Negrini’s at Lambeth and Newham councils.
Mustafa and Negrini worked closely together on the borough’s regeneration projects, and with Lacey they were frequent attendees at the annual MIPIM “booze and hookerfest” developers’ conference staged in the South of France each March.
But Mustafa’s time in charge has been characterised by the collapse of the Westfield redevelopment in the town centre, the delays and over-budget delivery of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment and the failure to meet the social housing targets set for controversial Brick by Brick.
The council has made loans of £260million to Brick by Brick since it was formed in 2015. To date, it has never made any profits, and by the end of 2019 it had delivered just three purpose-built council flats.
“Shifa was a Negrini appointee and has been very closely associated with the whole Brick by Brick experiment from its early days,” said the source.
“It won’t matter how ‘independent’ the review panel might be, if there are things that Shifa doesn’t want to have looked at too closely, she’ll just make sure that the terms of reference avoid them. They’ve nobbled the review before it has even begun.
“Tony Newman knew he was making a vacuous, empty promise when he offered the independent review on Monday. Empty promises are what he’s good at.”
With the emergency budget having been passed by cabinet on Monday, the reviews of the council’s various companies, including Brick by Brick, are expected to report by November.
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