The late, late show: scrutiny sees anger and hears of bullying

CROYDON IN CRISIS: The council is ‘on a journey’, according to the interim chief executive, who clung firmly to platitudes and clichés at her first scrutiny committee this week. But will it all be just ‘words, words, words’, as a veteran councillor asked? WALTER CRONXITE sat through the turgid meeting so that you wouldn’t have to

Sean Fitzsimons: a Doubting Thomas, six years too late

It’s been rare to see real emotion from the borough’s councillors in their various meetings in previous years. So the outbreak of frankness and outright anger evident in the virtual scrutiny and overview committee on Tuesday night was, in its way, a refreshing change to the tightly-controlled, censored sessions that were a vital element of the opaque council when Tony Newman and Jo Negrini were in charge.

But there was also a sense that it is just all too late now.

“We have to rethink our approach,” Sean Fitzsimons, the scrutiny chair, told his committee, a little belatedly. It was the widescale failings of the scrutiny committee to, well… scrutinise elements of the council’s financial wheeling and dealing which had drawn special criticism from the council’s auditors in their Report in the Public Interest last month.

“We have to be much more sceptical,” said Fitzsimons, only getting to grips with the role of his committee six years too late. “We’re all Doubting Thomases now,” he said, a bit too late.

Some things never change, though, and so the virtual session was delayed by 20 minutes because the council technology had broken. And when it did get underway, it did so without the elected councillors having been provided with the written report which is expected of such meetings.

Death by PowerPoint I: Kerswell’s council are on a ‘journey’ apparently

A previous senior Croydon official used to be accused of using “Death by PowerPoint”, a less-than-subtle technique drawn straight from The Thick Of It, with which he would bore his audiences – council staff or councillors – into submission. Katherine Kerswell, the interim chief exec, appears to have attended the same management training course and taken its advice to heart.

The session was introduced by a turgid, verbose and, frankly, patronising series of slides spoken over by Kerswell, Lisa Taylor, the chief finance officer who last week pulled the plug by issuing the Section 114 notice to declare the council broke, and council leader Hamida Ali.

Ali seemed slightly too thrilled that she had learned a new management cliché from the inspectors sent in by the government as part of their not-so-rapid review to judge whether Croydon is deserving of a bail-out. The inspectors are, apparently, “looking under the hood”.

The bland, empty phrases came thick and fast, with “journeys”, “silos” and promises of lots of “dialogue” with staff and residents. Notably, though, when asked what form such dialogue might take, Kerswell – who seemed at pains to stress that none of this mess was anything to do with her –  quickly dismissed any immediate prospect of any contact with mere Council Tax-payers.

“There’s a lot going on,” she said, seeming taken aback that such work should even be suggested. “We are in a crisis.”

Death by PowerPoint II: one of the slides from interim CEO Kerswell’s presentation to Tuesday’s scrutiny meeting. All clear now?

Among the councillors taking part in the meeting were three very capable Labour backbenchers who in many respects typify how the previous regime under Newman had marginalised, ignored and deceived even some within their own party: Leila Ben-Hassel, Jerry Fitzpatrick and Joy Prince.

Prince spoke with some concern about how the council’s middle management had a knack for hiding things, including long-term allegations of bullying.

Joy Prince: council officials are good at hiding things, including bullying allegations

After years of enduring mismanagement from his political leaders and senior council officials, most of whom remain in post, Fitzpatrick, a retired lawyer, is clearly out of patience. At one point, over the video link, he almost appeared to be… angry.

Kerswell’s suggestion that there was to be “an improvement board” to go over the 75 failures of the way the council is run listed in a consultant’s report is “Unlikely to cause much excitement to ripple through the streets of Thornton Heath,” Fitzpatrick said.

Such a board, according to Fitzpatrick, would just be “more men and women in grey suits”.

Fitzpatrick, warming to his theme, asked: “Who guards the guardians? There can be no accountability without transparency and information.”

Kerswell and Ali had both spoken about “changing the culture of the organisation”, the CEO saying that, “Our current culture has very deep roots.”

But Fitzpatrick wanted to see immediate change. “This committee had to scream and scream until it was sick to get information that a resident was able to obtain by an FoI. Will it all just be words, words, words?”

The frustration was evident.

Another councillor told Inside Croydon, “I don’t think the culture has changed yet at all levels.

“Katherine was right to say that ingrained behaviour takes years to change. And Hamida is instinctively open in a way that Tony Newman was not.

“I think the majority of us have had such a shock that we’re not likely to accept cabinet or officer assurances at face value any time soon.

“Katherine is with us precisely because of her previous experience, working at failing or failed local authorities. She seems to be making a good job of her niche career.”

The scrutiny committee was told by Kerswell of an independent investigation into the council to be conducted by the Local Government Association. “We know what happened, that’s in the auditors’ Report in the Public Interest. This independent investigation by the LGA will look at how it happened.”

But apart from a reference to the inquiry in the report for tonight’s extraordinary council meeting, many of the borough’s 70 councillors – some of them likely witnesses for the LGA, some of them subject to the investigation – had been told nothing about it. Another instance of plus ça change

Katherine Kerswell: has a three- to five-year recovery horizon, apparently

“I just hope that it’s a genuinely thorough probe, and not a whitewash,” a Labour councillor told Inside Croydon.

“Those responsible should be held accountable for their actions.”

There’s growing anger among Labour councillors who were silenced and ignored by Newman and his cabal of Alison Butler, Paul Scott and Simon Hall, who feel now that they are being blamed for what one of them called “the collapse of Brick by Brick’s onanistic Ponzi scheme”.

Said another, “The LGA probe should look very closely at what senior officers were telling Newman and his cabinet about the state of the finances. Without this, we will never get to the bottom of whether officers were hiding the truth – as Newman and Hall have claimed.

“If any senior officer is found to be at fault for decisions taken up to August this year, responsibility must ultimately rest with former chief executive Jo Negrini and she should be asked to repay her £440,000 golden goodbye. Rewards for failure are unacceptable at any time but especially so if they are found to have led to the council’s bankruptcy.”

This might yet all take some time. There’s some cause to suspect that, however accomplished Kerswell might be, there is some struggle going on simply to cope with the demands of what Ali described as “fast-moving situation”. Video conferences with up to 1,800 staff, Kerswell complained, can be difficult to manage and to take everyone’s questions (no shit, Sherlock). Clearly, Kerswell’s misjudging of the mood of council staff last week has rattled her.

But there’s always time for another bit of managementspeak: fixing the dysfunctional council “is not going to be instant or overnight”, Kerswell told scrutiny.

“There’s a three- to five-year horizon recovery programme.” Which really is all a bit too late.

Read more: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council
Read more: Council ignored five warnings on reserves
Read more: ‘An accountant could have foreseen this more than a year ago’
Read more: Officials to investigate possible wrong-doing at council

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Brick by Brick, Croydon Council, Hamida Ali, Jerry Fitzpatrick, Jo Negrini, Joy Prince, Katherine Kerswell, Paul Scott, Report in the Public Interest, Sean Fitzsimons, Section 114 notice, Tony Newman, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The late, late show: scrutiny sees anger and hears of bullying

  1. Kathy Young says:

    Yes, Croydon Council is certainly ‘on a journey’ – the road to hell.

  2. moyagordon says:

    Death by PowerPoint, fantastic!

  3. Billy James says:

    I watched that full council debate on the state of their finances tonight and does not give me much hope for the future of Croydon it was a farce attended mainly by a bunch of egotistical oaf’s.
    You had Labour councillors banging on about collective responsibility when it was them responsible for setting up _ rick run by _ ricks, you had a cabinet member who could not answer or not even met two directors from Croydon affordable homes LLP who are in receipt of millions OF Croydon residents money. You also had a sychophantic Labour councillor praising the leader of the council and apparently all her residents in her ward were understanding of the mistakes done by Labour .

  4. Another Croydon staffer says:

    Tales from the sewers @ Croydon

    Dear Katherine, are you afraid of weaponised social media? Should the offices be bugged? What staff want to know, we feel isn’t being answered honestly and timely. Having experienced the deviousness of senior managers us workers simply don’t trust those in charge we see them as part of the problem and not the solution.

    Last night’s meeting threw up a few points to note “Stacking up debt is never a good idea”, 250M to loss making Brick by Brick, really not a great revelation. Time hopfully will point a finger at those responsible. The new leader was a supporter of the old regime. Don’t want to get rid of the gang of 4 just want the improvement plan rubber stamped. It’s the blame game, it’s not acceptable to shift the blame to council staff when you are supposed to have oversight of public finances.

    Blame shifted to Croydon staff councillor Fitszsimons acknowledged scrutiny is very weak, “we were too trusting of the officer’s advice that this was a good deal” (purchase of Croydon Park hotel). Can this advice be published? What were the terms of reference for this advice as to suitability? Does this need to be a FOI?

  5. Kevin Croucher says:

    Why is Sean Fitzsimons still in his job as Chair of Scrutiny?
    Anyone with any self-respect would surely have resigned after the amount of criticism of the lack of scrutiny that was in Report in the Public Interest.

  6. Billy James says:

    Apparently in the online staff meeting today Kerswell and Ali told staff that proposals on saving money/funds are to be put to staff from monday…
    Lots of questions put to the gruesome twosome today and interestingly the BIGBAD insidecroydon was mentioned in one of the questions…
    Someone asked why they Croydon Council needed 2 HR directors apparently
    what the staff member read on BIGBAD insidecroydon Kerswell stated they only had one director…
    I have not read on here so it could be a ploy to discredit BIGBAD insidecroydon as Fake news using a sychophantic toady from BWH ?

    • Yep, you’re correct Billy. We have never reported that the council has two HR directors. Just the fact that it has a particularly useless HR department.
      This does smack of desperation: you’d think that those supposedly running the council had more important matters to attend to.
      Openness and transparency as ever…

  7. Lewis White says:

    If jobs are to be lost, it must be proportional. The Upper echelons in local government, as in private industry, get a lot more salary than the footsoldiers, plus a bigger pension, and redundancy sums.

    Croydon is “beyond saving by reducing the number of ballpont pens consumed per annum”.
    Sadly, ask any Captain of Industry, it’s the staff that cost the money.

  8. Tony Newman might have been the captain of the Amoco Cadiz when it hit the rocks but it was Sean Fitzsimons up to his neck in sh*t in the engine room. Why are we even giving this individual the time of day?

  9. Pingback: 'Vitriol': council staff let managers know what they think | Research Snappy

Leave a Reply