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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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