Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on the latest high-level casualty of the council’s self-inflicted financial crisis
Labour councillor Simon Hall, the cash-strapped council’s cabinet member in charge of its finances, has quit.
With the council struggling to fill the £70million covid-sized hole in its annual budget, Hall submitted his resignation from his £45,000 per year role just before 10 o’clock last night – so dodging the weekly edition of the Croydon Sadvertiser and any chance of detailed coverage on regional broadcast media at least for a couple of days.
“At a time when I am facing personal and family issues,” Hall wrote, “I do not feel it would be right for me to carry on.”
The decision came as a complete shock to most of Hall’s 40 Labour councillor colleagues, who received notification from him soon after. Barely 48 hours earlier, most of the Town Hall Labour group had been in one of their not-so-regular meetings (virtually, of course), when Hall had given no hint of his intention to resign, nor mentioned the “personal and family issues”.
The council leader, Tony Newman, was quick to accept the resignation, saying he did so “with sorrow”.
For once in his chequered political career, Newman was careful in his choice of words in his reply, and avoided using the phrase “we owe you a huge debt”. Croydon Council’s debt under Hall and Newman has increased by 50 per cent since 2014, and stands at £1.5billion, and rising.
There can be no doubt that the end of Hall’s six-year reign over the borough’s budgets puts even more strain on Newman’s increasingly untenable position in charge of the council.
Hall had come in for increasing criticism in the past six months, as the details of the borough’s parlous financial position gradually came to light.
Using tens of millions of pounds of public money, Hall’s adventure into the casino economics of property speculation collapsed with the closure of the Croydon Park Hotel in June. His failure to accrue greater reserves in case of an emergency, such as the pandemic, has been the subject of critical reports from outside bodies since the end of 2019, and long before coronavirus.
Hall was an enthusiastic champion of a revolving investment fund and the loss-making house-builders Brick by Brick, but both of these are now subject to an independent review.
And it is understood that it was Hall who orchestrated the abrupt departure from the council of chief exec Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, though this was conducted in such a cock-eyed manner that the self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner” ended up walking away from Fisher’s Folly with £440,000 in her back pocket, one of the largest pay-offs ever among local authorities in England.
Yet still Hall, and his chum Newman, managed to survive a vote of no confidence and get an emergency budget passed in the past fortnight.
Hall, a councillor since 2005 for what was Fieldway ward, now New Addington North, has been in charge of Croydon Labour’s finance policy at the Town Hall for a decade.
A key member of Newman’s inner clique, Hall, an accountant by profession, has a deserved reputation as a hard worker, but in attempting to deliver Blairite policies against a background of ever-decreasing funding from central government, his judgement has been proved to be questionable on a number of occasions.
Yet as calls for his resignation grew louder in recent weeks, Hall refused to budge.
The one thing to change significantly was Wednesday night’s meeting of GPAC, the General Purposes and Audit Committee, where auditors, internal and external, provided a series of withering takedowns of the manner in which the council, and its finances, have been handled. In particular, serious questions were raised about the legal rectitude of Hall’s purchases on behalf of the borough of commercial properties such as the hotel and the Colonnades entertainment centre.
None of which was mentioned in Hall’s somewhat self-congratulatory resignation email, which had no hint of an apology for the state of Croydon’s finances.
“I am incredibly proud of the role I have played over the last six and a half years as part of this administration,” Hall wrote.
“… In terms of the finances, I believe I have helped steer a course of delivering our manifesto commitments whilst we have had to contend with a decade of austerity.
“The last six months have, of course, been hugely challenging. And the financial impact has put us in an unprecedented position, which is needing an unprecedented response. This has been very challenging for me personally.”
Croydon’s opposition Tories have responded to the news, with Mario Creatura saying, “Along with his Labour colleagues, he’s responsible for bankrupting our council. He’s responsible for the sacking of street cleaners and social workers.
“His resignation doesn’t stop the questions, it raises yet more. For starters: how on earth can he be ‘proud’ of his record?”
Creatura and his Conservative colleagues failed in their efforts to have Hall sacked from his cabinet role. In truth, Hall has been coming under far greater pressure from within the council, and its internal and external auditors, as well as from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is expected to rule on Croydon’s recovery plan next month, and also from within his own Town Hall Labour group.
As one Labour councillor told Inside Croydon, “The discussions held at our group meeting on Wednesday night seem to have been orchestrated to buy more time for Tony Newman.
“He knows that there’s growing discontent in the Labour group over his leadership and he’s hoping to distract unhappy backbenchers from his poor performance and a possible leadership challenge.”
Another Katharine Street source said, “Negrini’s gone and now Hall’s gone. Tony’s running out of people to throw overboard to save himself. And the Ministry is coming after him now, of that there can be little doubt.
“He’s got to handle a council meeting on Monday night. Let’ see how he explains this away then.”
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