CROYDON IN CRISIS: After 15 years of running the Labour group to his own liking, the former council leader is not changing his old, bad habits.
WALTER CRONXITE, political editor, reports
The Grant Thornton Report in the Public Interest finally dropped at 5.20 on Friday evening, just a couple of hours before the borough’s Labour councillors were due to hold their latest virtual meeting.
This coincidence of events made for “a very contrite meeting”, according to one attendee.
But despite the devastating findings of the auditors’ report, including swingeing criticisms of the way the council had been run for six years under the leadership of Tony Newman and his clique of Alison Butler, Paul Scott and Simon Hall, some things at the meeting remained unchanged – especially Newman’s inability to accept responsibility.
“There was much more plain-speaking and talking from the heart by those present with Hamida as the new leader than there ever was with Tony in charge,” said a source.
“Many councillors members were asking how this was allowed to happen given the auditors’ warnings went back three years and were not acted upon.
“There was a genuine sense of shame of having let Croydon down.
“After Hamida’s public apology in the council press release on Friday, Simon Hall had the decency to say ‘Sorry’ when challenged about how this had all happened.
“But Tony Newman refused to say sorry.
“Both of them are still trying to blame council officials and government cuts and, bizarrely, even to blame the Tories on the council for voting in favour of past budgets.
“Newman was particularly scathing last night of Jo Negrini’s performance as chief executive, he tried to put the blame on her. This again begs the question why she was given a huge golden goodbye if her performance was so bad?
“Several members raised this and also queried whether her £440,000 pay-off could be clawed back in light of what has emerged.”
Among local Labour Party officials and activisits – the people who will be expected to go out on to the doorstep in 18 months’ to canvass for votes before the next local elections – there is a growing sense of anger at the way matters had been left to get out of hand at Croydon Town Hall.
“Newman and Hall probably thought they could save themselves by throwing Negrini to the wolves first,” a Labour member said. “But she knew where the bodies are buried, and she wasn’t going to go quietly unless they sorted her out with some serious compensation.
“But let’s not kid ourselves here, everyone at cabinet level in the council knew what was coming down the line. Maybe not the full extent of it or all the twists and turns. But they all knew they were part of a massive clusterfuck and heads would roll. It was just a case of who could escape with theirs intact.”
According to sources at Friday night’s meeting, new leader Ali and those who were previously in charge of the council continue to talk about “collective responsibility”, even though Newman, Hall and Butler spent much of the past six years keeping many of their colleagues in the dark over what was going on.
“Newman always made sure that full council meetings were tightly controlled, choreographed by the leader and chief whip,” the source said.
“They made sure that any Labour councillor who might want to ask an awkward or potentially embarrassing question was never chosen to ask it. Questions would be ‘edited’ or rewritten by members of Newman’s inner circle. Woe betide anyone who dared probe too far.”
And another Katharine Street source said, “Without doubt Tony Newman’s leadership is to blame for this mess and it’s disgusting that he hasn’t apologised.
“He made his cabinet appointments based on loyalty to him rather than on ability. As leader he decided who sat on the key scrutiny and other committees which looked at budget matters and he chose councillors who were not financially literate whilst freezing out the small number of councillors with financial experience to make sure that the difficult questions didn’t get asked.
“He personally appointed the chair of General Purposes and Audit Committee and, while the chair of scrutiny is elected by the Labour group, he gave its chair a whopping increase in his allowances to keep him on-side.
“And those councillors in receipt of special responsibility allowances courtesy of Tony, including all of his cabinet, were unwilling to raise any concerns they might have had because they all knew that Tony didn’t want to hear views that were different to his and they knew he’d sack them for disloyalty if they asked awkward questions.”
Some worried council figures, including some who remain in Ali’s cabinet, have been looking over the shoulders at what could be the possible consequence of spending six years pledging unquestioning fielty to Newman.
They may get lucky. Since 2000, with the removal of the local authority surcharge, there do not appear to be any financial penalties for malpractice in local government public office. “Nor can Newman be forced to resign as a councillor,” said the source in the meeting.
“But I think I can say with certainty that he won’t be getting an OBE or the Freedom of the Borough.”
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