CROYDON IN CRISIS: The Report in the Public Interest from the council’s auditors had been well-trailed. But few, if any, expected the undertones of anger from the accountants over the crass mismanagement of the council.
STEVEN DOWNES reports
It was less than 24 hours since she had been confirmed as leader of the council (“The honour of my life,” she was saying on Thursday night), and the first significant act of Hamida Ali’s time in charge at Croydon Town Hall was to issue a grovelling apology for six years of crass mismanagement by her former boss and mentor, Tony Newman, and his discredited clique.
It was a courageous move from the new leader, but undoubtedly necessary for the mandarins from Whitehall, watching to see whether Ali and her (slightly) new team can accept and learn from the mistakes of the Newman administration in which they had been so happy to serve. It is those civil servants at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government who will be deciding in the next month whether to agree to the council recovery plan that Ali and her team will be delivering to them.
Ali’s apology came in response to the Report in the Public Interest from the council auditors, Grant Thornton, who were effectively showing the red card to the regime of Newman and his choice of chief executive, Jo Negrini.
Ali had already referred to the report’s findings as “shocking”, though devastating might be a more apposite choice of word.
The audit report had been well-trailed, with Grant Thornton directors warning council committees of its arrival and the borough’s finance consultant providing a report of his own listing 75 separate areas where the council’s conduct was less than “best practice”.
Once the auditors’ report was received (at 5.20pm on a Friday night, the accompanying council press release was at pains to state), it was published in full on the council website and Ali’s mea culpa was issued.
And while many of the points in the 21-page document were expected, what few observers could have foreseen was the sense of utter contempt and anger that the auditors have with the council for the clusterfuck that they had caused. But then, Grant Thornton had been warning Negrini, Newman and his numpties for at least three years.
And no, according to the auditors’ report, the council’s parlous financial position – £1.5billion of debt and a busted 2020-2021 budget – is not just down to covid-19 nor the Tory-led governments’ austerity measures. And now, even the council leader is admitting as much.
In the council’s statement last night, Ali said, “This report highlights serious issues with how the council has managed its finances in recent years.
“These problems have deep roots, but I am sorry we got things wrong and I want to reassure our residents, staff and partners that my absolute priority as the council’s newly-elected leader is to put this right. While a decade of austerity and the covid-19 crisis have had a major impact on our finances they do not excuse the issues this report has laid bare.
“The council fully accepts the findings and recommendations of this report and the council’s new leadership will take swift and decisive action to stabilise the council’s finances and governance.
“My new administration is committed to a new culture which puts transparency, accountability and value for money at its heart.”
Yet while the new leader accepted the auditors’ criticisms, her predecessor appeared still to be clinging on to his old set of excuses and tendency to blame everyone but himself.
Since resigning as leader of the Town Hall Labour group a fortnight ago, Newman had been keeping a very low profile on social media.
Last night, he broke his Twitter silence to write, “Auditors right to publish [Report in the Public Interest] our financial governance has not been strong enough and been found wanting under the further pressures of covid. Cabinet accepted responsibility and supported all the recommendations, and I fully support [Hamida Ali’s] determination to implement them.”
Some Croydon residents – the few Newman, never able to accept criticism, had not blocked on social media – reacted with scorn to this latest exhibition of hubris.
“Is this a parody account?” asked one in response to the former leader’s squirming.
Another resident wrote to Newman, “The Auditors don’t need your endorsement in exposing all that has happened under your leadership. Sometimes, just sometimes, accepting responsibility and showing some humility goes a long way in righting the wrongs of the past.”
For six years, as a loyal ward colleague councillor and cabinet member, Ali had never been heard utter a peep of disagreement with Newman as her leader.
But she did now.
“These problems have deep roots, and while a decade of austerity and the covid-19 crisis have had a major impact on our finances, they do not excuse the serious financial issues in this report,” Ali
wrote. “I want to reassure our residents and staff that my absolute priority is to put this right.”
Three minutes after Newman’s tweet, Ali was using social media again.
It reads very much like a corrective, a stinging rebuke to the “nuffink to do with me, guv” tweet from Newman.
“My new administration will take a different approach,” Ali wrote, “we have a new chief executive, I’ve appointed a new Cabinet and I want to work with all parties to move Croydon forward.
“We will be taking swift and decisive action to address all of the issues the report raises.”
Maybe, just maybe, something really will change.
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