CROYDON IN CRISIS: Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on what passed for a ‘night of the long knives’ at the council’s extraordinary meeting
Hamida Ali’s first act as the leader of the council last night was to sack three of the most senior – and loathed – members of the Labour Town Hall’s cabinet.
Paul Scott and Alison Butler, the husband and wife team who have been in charge of the borough’s failed Brick by Brick house-building experiment, as well as planning and housing, were both unceremoniously jettisoned, to join Ali’s predecessor as council leader, Tony Newman, sulking on the backbenches.
“At least that will keep the Tories off her back for a couple of weeks,” one Town Hall figure noted.
Also fired was hitherto loyal deputy leader Stuart Collins, dropped from his “clean, green Croydon” brief in which he had failed to rid the borough of the scourge of fly-tipping as had been promised.
“It’s what passes for a night of the long knives in south London,” said another senior local Labour Party figure.
In the past fortnight, the Newman clique which had held an iron grip on the Town Hall and local Labour politics for more than a decade has been broken apart, in the midst of the deepening financial crisis confronting the council.
After the perfunctory meeting had confirmed Ali as leader, (“the honour of my life,” as Ali described it), she promised to “recognise where we have got things wrong”, and repeated the warning that there are yet more “shocking” revelations yet to emerge from the council.
“There are further concerns which will come to light shortly which will be shocking to all of us – councillors, residents and staff,” Ali told the virtual meeting.
As Croydon’s first BAME leader of the council, Ali’s front-bench team is 70 per cent black, Asian or minority ethnic. In announcing her slimmed-down cabinet, Ali handed promotions to two seemingly capable councillors previously ignored for preferment, Muhammad Ali and David Wood, who both get front-bench jobs for the first time.
And there was a promotion, of sorts, for Stuart King, who has been assigned to the new cabinet role of “Croydon Renewal”. King had previously been in a cabinet “job share” with Scott on roads and environment, apparently because of time pressures from his job as managing director at Westminster publishers Dods Group. Last week, King also opted out of running for the leadership of the Labour group, in order to spend more time with his young family.
Now, though, King has accepted the (as yet unexplained and undefined) role overseeing the first 18 months of the council’s recovery from being taken to the edge of bankruptcy by Newman and his cabal.
Privately, Croydon’s opposition Tories were delighted and claiming the scalps of Scott and Butler, after their new leader, Jason Perry, had demanded nothing less the previous week.
Publicly, the Conservatives on the council were underwhelmed with the cabinet changes announced by Ali, comprising many familiar faces from the old regime: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, was how one described it.
In her speech, Ali said, “I am deeply honoured and privileged to have been elected to lead the council at this crucial point in time.
“This is a time of unprecedented challenge for Croydon as we continue our work protecting the most vulnerable and supporting residents and businesses through the covid-19 pandemic, as well as getting to grips with the council’s significant budget challenges.
“Working with my talented new cabinet I am committed to opening up the council’s decision-making process and putting our finances back on a stable footing so that we can focus on continuing to deliver high-quality services in a way that is sustainable for the future.
“It is a long road ahead but my cabinet and I are determined to provide the leadership Croydon needs to overcome the council’s current challenges, support our community through covid-19 and deliver the excellent services residents deserve.
“My administration will be resolutely focused on the change we need to make as an organisation for the benefit of the borough and our residents.
“We will seek to be open, responsive, self-reflective and listening. And we will recognise where we have got things wrong.
“This administration will never forget the residents we are elected to serve.
“While we face major challenges in the coming weeks and months I believe Croydon’s best days lie ahead of us and I look forward to working with the whole council over the coming years to realise them.”
Ali went on to announce her council cabinet:
- Croydon Renewal – Stuart King (new post)
- Resources and Financial Governance – Callton Young (appointed two weeks ago, replacing Simon Hall)
- Children, Young People and Learning – Alisa Flemming (no change)
- Families, Health and Social Care – Janet Campbell (no change)
- Homes and Gateway Services – Jane Avis (replaces Alison Butler)
- Communities, Safety and Resilience – David Wood (replaces Hamida Ali)
- Sustainable Croydon – Muhammad Ali (replaces Stuart King)
- Economic Recovery and Skills – Manju Shahul-Hameed (no change)
- Culture and Regeneration – Oliver Lewis (no change)
There has been no announcement as yet of deputy cabinet positions, nor other key roles, such as chief whip or the positions which Newman had put on cabinet-level allowances in his bloated administration: chair of the health and well-being board, and chair of scrutiny.
Butler and Collins were both elected by the Labour councillor colleagues as deputies under Newman, and received increased allowances for that position while carrying out cabinet jobs. No announcement has been made to explain how Ali will resolve that position.
Jane Avis’s rapid return to the cabinet – she was sacked by Newman earlier this year, shortly after being widowed – is seen by insiders as Ali rewarding a friend. “Jane and Hamida have always been close,” a Katharine Street source said.
And one Town Hall figure that has worked closely with both women said, “Putting a hardcore Momentum member in charge of Housing and Gateway services? That’s all about cuts and rent collection, so who will do the work for Jane?”
The creation of the “Croydon Renewal” brief has left some Town Hall insiders asking who, exactly, will be responsible for the council finances?
“Who calls the shots on sorting out the council’s financial mess – Stuart King or Callton Young?” one said.
“I’m really struggling to work out who’ll be doing what.”
Matters might become clearer very soon, as at a briefing given by the council auditors to Labour councillors last night, they were told that – as threatened – Grant Thornton is to issue a “Report in the Public Interest”, probably as soon as today.
Such a report, rarely used with local authorities previously, happens only when the accountants have deep and unresolvable issues with the council’s accounts, or those of companies linked to the council.
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