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
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