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
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.
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.”
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.
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…
“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.
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