Hold very tight: will Buss give Brick by Brick a rough ride?

Our Town Hall reporter, KEN LEE, on how the local council troubleshooter who was brought in to deal with Kensington and Chelsea’s finances in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire has now been hired by Croydon

In the final days of her time in Croydon, Jo “Negreedy” Negrini became notorious for trying to charge 81 quid a ticket for a prosecco and canapés guided tour around the town centre for her architect chums, all on an old London double-decker.

Chris Buss: local council troubleshooter

Now, it seems, Negrini’s brainchild, the council’s loss-making builders Brick by Brick, are going to be given a Buss trip that they may never forget.

Chris Buss is the local government troubleshooter who was brought in to deal with Kensington and Chelsea’s financial crisis in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. Buss has now been appointed by Croydon to help oversee an independent review into the workings of Brick by Brick.

Croydon announced last night that it has hired management consultants PWC to conduct the review of its arrangements with its companies and other entities, who also include Croydon Affordable Homes, the Growth Zone and Revolving Investment Fund. And former Wandsworth deputy chief exec Chris Buss has been asked, “to act as the client lead in this project to manage the interaction with the council and ensure independent briefing of PWC and transparency in reporting”.

The media statement was unusual for Croydon press releases: it was full of serious detail about the terms of the review, and it was missing any of the attention-seeking fluff and nonsense quotes normally inserted by senior councillors who want to be associated with the latest vacuous initiative that has come along. That neither Tony Newman, the council leader, nor his cabinet member for finance, Simon Hall, want to be too closely associated with what could develop into a post-mortem into their costly schemes is no real surprise.

Council-owned, but does it make any money? The £53m Colonnades, off the Purley Way

But nor was there any quote on the matter attributed to Croydon’s new council CEO, Katherine Kerswell, though you did not have to do much reading between the lines to see her influence on the announcement.

Buss, the press release stated bluntly, “will report directly to the chief executive”. Which suggests that Kerswell wants to keep Croydon’s third-rate politicians well away from the review.

The review of the council’s business interests, which will include consideration of the speculative property investments in the Croydon Park Hotel and Colonnades entertainment complex, is part of the council’s efforts to address the £70million budget overspend this year caused by dealing with coronavirus.

“The results of the review will be reported to the November cabinet meeting and will form an important part of the submission to government to gain financial support for the council,” the release stated. The council cabinet meeting is due to be held on November 16.

Until going into semi-retirement in 2017, Buss had been finance director and deputy chief executive at Wandsworth Council, after a career in local government that had started more than 40 years earlier in Lambeth.

At Wandsworth, the Tory flagship council, Buss was the finance director who oversaw the introduction of part-ownership Right to Buy. Towards the end of his time there, Buss also had responsibilities with Richmond council, including as finance director, what is called in councilspeak the Section 151 officer.

Buss’s time at Kensington and Chelsea after the Grenfell fire was an experience ‘never to be repeated‘. Now he’s working in Croydon

A spell hired as a consultant on a couple of Wandsworth regeneration schemes followed immediately afterwards (doubtless on a lucrative fee, though Wandsworth refused to answer FoIs to determine exactly how much), Buss is now a director of a private consultancy, Darenace Ltd, where he offers the benefit of his experience to those councils in need: “… available for short or long term projects, expertise in governance, pensions and regeneration as well as general local authority finance”.

It was this that saw him hired by Kensington and Chelsea in September 2017, just weeks after the Grenfell fire tragedy in which at least 72 residents of the tower block died. Buss’s memory of his year at K&C shows the stresses of that short-term appointment offered: “A year in the life of a Section 151 officer that was like no other,” he noted.

“An experience not to be missed. But hopefully never to be repeated.”

And now he’s been parachuted in to Fisher’s Folly for the next five weeks or so.

According to the council’s statement last night, the review of Brick by Brick and other commercial entities “will advise the council in regard to its companies and provide assurance and full transparency of any risks or any liabilities from its current operations.

Katherine Kerswell: the review’s authors will report to her

“The review is in two parts. This first part of the review will inform the council’s approach in its management of the company, given the significant financial constraints facing the council.”

Included in the first stage of the review will be a look at “the overall financial health of Brick by Brick”, “A review of the effectiveness of governance arrangements within Brick by Brick”, and “A review of development viability appraisals of projects within the development pipeline”.

Brick by Brick was formed in 2015, backed by former council CEO Negrini and enthusiastically supported by Newman, Hall and their chums, Alison Butler (the cabinet member for housing) and Paul Scott (Butler’s husband and the cabinet member in charge of planning).

By the end of 2019, it had delivered just three purpose-built council flats. The company has never made a profit, despite being sold dozens of council-owned properties around the borough at well-below market value. Six sites were sold to Brick by Brick by the council for just £1 each.

Despite the council already being deep in financial crisis, with a £1.5billion mountain of debt, earlier this year Croydon borrowed yet more cash to give Brick by Brick a £36million shot in the arm to buy up 189 of its flats.

It had been clear for a couple of  years that Brick by Brick struggling to meet its construction and other deadlines. This included going at least £13million over-budget on the long-delayed Fairfield Halls refurbishment project. The company’s relationships with some large firms of contractors were also strained to breaking point.

BxB couldn’t sell these flats in Longheath Gardens as shared ownership, as planned, because they never registered as a provider of such homes

The self-inflicted clusterfuck over shared ownership risked pushing the company closer to the edge. Brick by Brick was unable to sell (the often very expensive) shared ownership flats because it had never registered as a recognised supplier of such homes. Shared ownership was supposed to be the major proportion of “affordable” properties which BxB would deliver to achieve its target of delivering 50per cent affordable homes.

The council says that its review “…will lead to the development of an action plan to address any issues of concern or risk to the governance, performance, and finances of Brick by Brick and how that might affect the council.

“The second part of the review will inform the council’s long-term strategy, again given the significant financial constraints facing the council and the need to maximise the supply of affordable housing.”

And Hall and Newman’s adventure in the casino economics of property speculation will also be given a close look by PWC and Buss, according to the council.

” The review of the other three areas – Croydon Affordable Homes, the Growth Zone and Revolving Investment Fund – will focus on ensuring that the original business case remains valid and fit for purpose in recognition of the council’s changed circumstances and understanding any risks and liabilities the council might be facing.”

Which would be a first for this council.

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
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5 Responses to Hold very tight: will Buss give Brick by Brick a rough ride?

  1. Interesting times ahead indeed. Anyone in that area would be well advised not to stand in front of any fans, electrical ones that is. Its beginning to look like the end is really close for Tony and his stumbling, bumbling cohort of cronies.

  2. Kevin Croucher says:

    Seems that the new CEO is earning her money. More than could be said for the previous one.

  3. Joe Clark says:

    £13 million overspend on Fairfield Halls, i don’t think so, try nearer £30 million overspend! My brother in law was a sub-contractor working there prior to lockdown, and the last figure he was told was north of £60 million and still rising, and apparently the place is falling to bits inside with the Council’s own contractors in there trying to rectify it!!

    Regardless of Negreedy setting this prick by prick (sorry brick by brick) outfit up as a private company to avoid FOI’s, this is £60 million of Croydon tax payers money that has been wasted, so should be looked into by the serious fraud office, let alone Mr Buss, but good on him if he does expose them!

    • We prefer to go with confirmed, official figures, which have put the spend so far at £43million.
      We are aware of rumours about the eventual cost being greater, but we don’t report rumours.
      If your brother-in-law would like to contact us directly to discuss more details about what has been going on at the Fairfield Halls, we’d be keen to listen.

  4. alicdoodle says:

    Given that the council has bought a hotel (and let it go bust) is £1.5billion in the red, set up a failing social housing concern that is not building any social housing bar 3 flats and wasted £200million?, botched the Fairfield halls and bought a shopping centre with public money but none of this with any public assent/consent, botched Westfield when it was clear to everyone it was not happening, I would think the Serious fraud office / plod/ some kind of public standards office should be on speed dial by now?

    and there’s the sacking of 400 front line staff while that negreedy get a back hander of 400k, and the ongoing wilful destruction of the borough’s detached dwellings by developers by Councillor Scott’s planning destruction department. Houses we’ll never get back, neighbourhoods ruined. While the brown field sites remain blighting the centre of Croydon and it looks like downtown World War ii. And as a bit of wanton destruction he approves a 17 storey tower in Purley…. or there are plans to build 10,000 homes on Riddlesdown. Idiots. Get them gone.

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