CROYDON IN CRISIS: They say confession is good for the soul, though apologies issued yesterday by several council executives read more like pleas to keep their jobs. By WALTER CRONXITE
There were several council staff members who half-expected Katherine Kerswell, their interim chief exec, after this morning’s latest briefing, to lead a solemn procession of the “Executive Leadership Team” out of Fisher’s Folly and into what remains of Queen’s Gardens.
One by one they would go, following Kerswell… Shifa Mustafridaysoff, Heather Cheesbrough, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, Lisa Taylor, one or two others, all dressed in sackcloth, ashes (probably taken from top-secret documents burned in the final hours before Jo Negrini left the building) scattered over their heads, and all chanting, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa“, before taking some twigs from the few remaining trees in the open space for a spot of self-flagellation.
The whole scene watched from a window of the council offices by a couple of smiling sadomasochists from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (one of them, were this to be directed by Kubrick, played by Malcolm McDowell).
Not if you’d seen the email bulletin sent out yesterday afternoon by Kerswell, carefully crafted to appeal to the MHCLG bods who are crawling all over the council now, by order of Robert Jenrick, while also stamping the interim CEO’s authority over the senior staff who she has inherited and who are responsible for the colossal mess at the council.
Kerswell’s memo included a rogues gallery of Croydon’s executive directors. Almost in the style of a 21st Century Spanish Inquisition, each had their mug shot next to their signed confession.
It was, as one Fisher’s Folly staffer noted, “As if the headmistress of a particularly boisterous school had had the ring-leaders into her office and got them each to write a hundred lines.”
The Report in the Public Interest published by auditors Grant Thornton last Friday has shaken the council’s execs very badly.
“I am truly sorry for the situation we are now in and in particular the impact it will inevitably have on all our staff and residents,” wrote Mustafa, the exec director of “Place”, who has been in charge of such mismanaged multi-million-pound projects as Brick by Brick and Fairfield Halls, and whose department got a particularly fierce kicking in the audit report. She remains in her £180,000 per year job, for now at least.
“I accept Grant Thornton’s report,” wrote the borough solicitor, Harris-Baker, as if she had any option otherwise. Harris-Baker had been promoted by Negrini beyond her qualifications to head up the council’s resources department.
According to Harris-Baker, “The report covers a long and well-documented history of poor financial management and governance across the council and of various company entities.” A period when Harris-Baker had been in charge, often covering for her boss.
“I have thought long and hard on what more could have been done to prevent us reaching this position. I am sorry for the impact this report and the council’s financial crisis has had on you and our residents and that this is the position we find ourselves in.”
Harris-Baker wants “to move forward, learn our lessons and … take action quickly to implement change… something which I am more than prepared to do”. Just a hint of someone pleading to keep her six-figure salaried job, you think?
Hazel Simmonds, another executive director, also ‘fessed up: “As part of a corporate team, I should have challenged more, I should have tried harder for Croydon and all of you. Please accept my apology and note that I will work hard with all of you to be part of the solution.”
Presumably she really meant “work hard with all of you who are left once the 400-plus jobs are cut“.
Time and again, Grant Thornton’s report had highlighted the lack of “challenge” among senior staff and from elected councillors, as the organisation continued implementing costly policies long after it had been clear that they were failing. What the auditors called “corporate blindness”.
Lisa Taylor has been in the finance hot seat since January 2019, right after her former boss, Richard Simpson, had walked out of his job as exec director for finance. His abrupt departure has never been explained.
Taylor’s job title, according to yesterday’s staff circular, is “director of finance, investment and risk”. It’s just that, according to Grant Thornton, too much emphasis has been placed of late on the risk bit.
Taylor wrote that, “I want you to know that I accept this report and recommendations from our auditors, Grant Thornton.” Which is nice.
And just in case you were wondering, “… the report covers a long period of time and a wide range of issues across all the departments of the council, with not one person or department at fault alone”. So it wasn’t her then.
“What is most important for me right now is that we work quickly together to implement the recommendations and put Croydon back on a stable financial and operational footing for the future.”
The mystery that these confessions creates is just who is the corporate and HR lawyer that the council is using to prepare the groundwork for future exec level sackings and avoiding expensive employment tribunal cases?
Headmistress Kerswell, meanwhile, is beginning to build a team of her own.
Her own appointment in Croydon was in part brokered by the Local Government Association, and according to Kerswell the LGA are providing “a package of support” which includes the appointment of Elaine Jackson, who until last week had been the acting chief exec at Tandridge.
“Elaine has joined us to help with our improvement plan, the action plan in response to the public interest report and look at how we’re structured as an organisation – work that we’ll make sure is shared with you all,” Kerswell told staff in the round-robin.
Now heading an organisation which under Negrini and Nathan Elvery before her had a well-deserved reputation for secrecy and pursuing any whistle-blowers who dared question the authority of their bosses, Kerswell advised staff, “All of your thoughts and views matter. This is about everyone feeling able to speak up and share their opinion – without fear of repercussion. That is the only way we can all be honest with one another, and we must be completely open or we won’t be able to learn, won’t able to change and that will make it impossible to move forward and rebuild things and be accountable.”
According to Kerswell, many staff “are angry, upset and want answers on why this was able to happen”.
She wrote, “Joining Croydon as interim chief executive means I also have a responsibility for getting to the bottom of what went wrong and a personal accountability for making it right, and I really am so sorry that we are in this situation. I can see the worry that it’s causing and the strain it is putting on you – as professionals and on a more personal level, which just isn’t fair.”
Explaining the mass mea culpae, Kerswell added, “All of the leadership team are committed to their role… which means everyone accepting and owning our collective and individual corporate responsibility.”
According to Kerswell, MHCLG’s task force, under Chris Wood, are already conducting their “rapid review”, announced by Tory minister Robert Jenrick yesterday.
“This review is to give assurance to the government that we understand our situation, that we are not in denial and that we are doing everything possible to sort this out…”. Hamida Ali, the new leader of the council “… and I have been very clear that we see this as a very positive step from MHCLG as the more assurance they have on our situation”, Kerswell wrote.
Which sounds as if Labour councillor Ali doesn’t really have much say in the situation at all. Croydon’s council is well and truly already in the hands of Whitehall.
Read more: Jenrick orders urgent inquiry into ‘unacceptable’ council
Read more: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council
Read more: Council ignored five warnings on reserves
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Jo Negrini must be pursued and forced to pay back her £440,000 payoff.
The people responsible should be prosecuted, end of….
Kerswell and Hamida Ali took questions from Croydon staff today on the web, but staff had to submit the questions beforehand.
Councillors are going to go on financial courses to help them out in their roles. You could not make this up!
I suggest the employees who have lost their jobs due to the mis-management of the council finances seek legal advice and take action against these people and the council, how the hell can these people have the audacity to remain in their jobs while the innocent hard working employees lose theirs!! They have all admitted failure
Integrity bypass all round..How can these people morally keep their posts?? Such incompetence by ALL of them…400 staff gone and more to go,just because they didnt “challenge” enough.!!..oh and dont mention pay cuts to these “leaders”.The new culture of openess” wont allow such suggestions….Should fire the lot of them.I bet they would “challenge “then…
Some directors will need to be sacked….end off.
A top heavy organisation of high pay officials that has proven not to work in the organization’s interest and more like a ‘God father’ partisan group.
I notice this new “head “doesn’t seem to last long and has allegedly ,herself enjoyed a large 400 grand pay out after slashing 1000 plus jobs at Kent Council..Beware Croydon Council employees…..Enjoy your new “open door” policy…just dont say anything…
A sad situation for Croydon Council to be in. The people who have failed in their highly paid roles must shoulder some of the responsibility. Hopefully lessons can be learned.
All those people accountable and did nothing can NEVER be trusted.
There are too many executives who were recruited with Jo Negrini and Tony Newman on the selection panel – they should be re-interviewed by people who know what they are doing.
I have a councillor friend who sat in on a senior executive interview three years ago – the level of scrutiny was non-existent and and suitability of the candidate highly questionable. But Jo Negrini thought ‘her face would fit’.
I am always amazed that when people are parachuted in to ‘sort things out’ they all seem to come from the same local Council backgrounds.
Is it not time for people who understand budgets and pin-pointing what needs to be done – however brutal – to be looking at not only the books but the structure that allows messes like this to happen?
And the previous comment is correct – too many of the people in very senior posts have been raised far above their capabilities because of who they know rather than what they know. But they still keep their ridiculously large salaries because no one has the desire to break the circle because it might throw light on their own lack of leadership and management skills.
It really is time for someone independent of central or local government and business aware to look at Croydon Council entire structure and redefine its purpose and support getting people with the skills to deliver just that – back to basics, Croydon residents deserve so much better.
At senior levels, many local authorities at times seem to set aside the normal open and equal opportunity recruitment, which should be applicable to ALL staff employments , and, instead, get in mates and mates of mates. It’s all wrong.
The same goes for consultant appointments. All appointments should in fact go through objective processes, and interviews from panels, but don’t always.
In recruitment, for the above, Croydon needs to reform its practices. Or the potential for nepotism and matepotism remains. This is a Public authority, and its standards need to be high.
With regard to Croydon’s financial woes, it is important to highlight that there is a gulf of difference between Croydon’s current problems (where its investment in commercial property was going reasonably well — until Covid and the pre-existing drift to on-line shopping came along and destroyed hotels and shopping centres, both private and public sector-owned) – and more serious examples from other places and decades.
Croydon is not Doncaster’s “Donnygate” nor Derek Hatton’s Liverpool, nor T Dan Smith’s Newcastle.
Sadly, the scrutiny of all local authorities and similar organisations was undermined by the Conservatives in 2012, when they abolished the Standards Board .
Here is what Wikepedia says…..
“The Standards Board for England was a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Established under the Local Government Act 2000, it was responsible for promoting high ethical standards in local government. It oversaw the nationally imposed Code of Conduct (also now abandoned), which covered elected and co-opted members across a range of local authorities. The board maintained an independent national overview of local investigations into allegations that members’ conduct might have fallen short of the required standards. In certain cases the board itself investigated allegations. It could not impose sanctions on members, but if it considered that further action might be necessary, it referred cases to the Adjudication Panel for England or to the relevant authority’s own standards committee for determination. Standards committees (no longer compulsory since 2012) could suspend members for up to six months. The Adjudication Panel could disqualify members for up to five years. The Standards Board for England also provided advice, and produced formal guidance, to members and officers on the Code of Conduct.
As part of the 2010 UK quango reforms, the board ceased to function on 31 January 2012 and was formally abolished on 31 March 2012. ”
The staff are angry for one reason. These apologists for failure are still keeping their hefty pay packets and jobs, despite massive failure. Any other organisations and they would be out. Fact.
Then they see yet another highly paid “leader” is put in place to cut services to residents and more poorly-paid frontline workers are thrown on the scrap heap by a “what council nex?t” temporary leader.
It’s disgusting none of them haven’t resigned. No dignity. The staff do not want to be “led” by these people. How can you trust such incompetence and weak management?
A group of us watched this webcast on a friend’s phone on Friday.
It was actually cringey watching the bungling bunch of council directors all saying sorry just for the sake of it, with no real feeling or meaning, one by one sounding like they were reading from the same script so they can keep their six-figure salaries. They are ALL to blame, every single one of them, and they should all do the right thing now and resign immediately.
If not, they should have their jobs terminated by the government officials who are in there looking at the mess.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the director by the name of Steve Iles (public realm director, whatever that is?), had the barefaced cheek to compare the directors’ mismanagement of tens of millions of tax payers’ money to the terrible Croydon tram derailment, close to the anniversary of that terrible, terrible event.
“We are resilient, we will get through this financial mess like we did the tram disaster.”
Well try telling that to the poor families that lost their loved ones on that fateful day, and are still awaiting the repeatedly delayed inquest to find out why their loved ones lost their lives, while they were just on their way to work. What a disgusting comparison to make. His position was untenable before saying such an awful thing, it is surely imperative that he stands down with immediate effect, and offers a true and full apology to the families of the victims who lost their lives, and those who survived the derailment.
I used to work for Steve Iles. I’m afraid this is typical of him. There is only one thing he’s interested in and it’s not anyone else.