CROYDON IN CRISIS: The director of planning and the borough’s culture chief are to leave Fisher’s Folly – the first top-level departures since the council issued its Section 114 notice. By STEVEN DOWNES
Heather Cheesbrough, Croydon’s director of planning, and Paula Murray, the director of culture, are both to leave the bankrupt council, the first director-level departures since the authority was forced to admit it is broke and issued a Section 114 notice earlier this month.
“Well, that’s an immediate saving of nearly £6,000 per week from the council’s wage bill,” was how a Katharine Street source put it this morning.
The departures, neither thought to be redundancies, could be the start of an exodus of senior staff from the bankrupt council.
According to a Town Hall source, the twin exit is a sign that Katherine Kerswell, the interim chief executive, is exerting influence in a bid to be handed her £192,000 per year job on a permanent basis. “There may be more to come,” the source added, portentously.
Both Cheesbrough and Murray were appointed by Kerswell’s unmissed and unlamented predecessor, Jo Negrini. Both were senior figures in the “Place” directorate run by four-days-a-week exec director Shifa Mustafa.
Neither Kerswell nor the council propaganda department responded to Inside Croydon’s invitation to comment on the departures.
While the council has been deleting more than 400 frontline council posts since the summer in a desperate effort to balance its budgets and plug a £66million hole, there have been no redundancies among the most senior staff. Neither of the directors’ departures are understood to be part of the redundancy process which is now being expected to deliver another 130 job cuts.
At last count, there were 18 staff at director level or above, nearly all of them on salaries of £100,000 per year or more.
Inside Croydon has been told that the heads of service in the planning department were informed that Cheesbrough has resigned her job to take up a post at another local authority.
Neither Cheesbrough nor Murray will be much missed by those who had to work for them, according to sources in Fisher’s Folly. Murray’s departure, though, will raise serious questions about Croydon’s status as London’s “Borough of Culture” for 2023, a year-long festival which, in the midst of library closures and other service cuts, is looking increasingly less viable as something which the council can afford.
Murray joined Croydon in April 2016 on secondment from Brighton and Hove City Council, where her job as assistant chief executive was being… deleted. The post of “culture director” had never existed before and was made permanent soon after, after the job had barely been advertised.
On Murray’s watch, the “creative quarter” which was meant to flourish around the Fairfield Halls, has never materialised.
The multi-million-pound refurbishment of the Halls, a project handed to Brick by Brick, ran over-schedule and vastly over-budget. That was not in Murray’s direct control, but one area where she will have had a say was in the component parts of the revamped Halls. After spending at least £43million, the borough now has an arts venue with no art gallery.
In 2017, BHLive, swimming pool managers from the south coast, were appointed to manage the venue, though their lease remains unsigned to this day.
Meanwhile, a borough arts festival budget of £180,000 per annum was diverted to Boozepark and the council gave financial backing to a street art festival that was staged by a bankrupt.
Murray also managed to lavish £50,000 in council grants on a performance art festival, including some shows in the Town Hall, and which notoriously included a performer using “a series of modified butt plugs… The actions and objects are designed to enrapture rather than repel, in an effort to demystify the anus”.
In the event, that performance was to prove to be an exceptionally apt metaphor for the shit show that would be played out in the Town Hall over the following two years.
It will be interesting what they manage to raise in a whip-round for Cheesbrough’s leaving present. According to some who have worked for her, she cannot leave soon enough.
“It was like working under the boss in The Devil Wears Prada,” according to one staffer in the planning department.
Having previously worked in more junior positions at St Albans and Hounslow, Cheesbrough was recruited as Croydon’s director of planning and strategic transport in 2016.
“On her first meeting with planners, she set out her Draconian measures for the future and invited those of us that didn’t like it to leave,” according to one insider.
“Of course, this rather unfriendly introduction created a mass exodus of very good planners – consequently Croydon lost a lot of planners, with local knowledge, who genuinely cared about the prospects of the borough.”
Another with direct experience of working with Cheesbrough described her as “trigger-happy”, someone “who lets anything go with regard to planning or development in Croydon, much to the annoyance of the teams below her, who are actually good people and are not supportive of the over-development she (and Councillor Paul Scott) are allowing through”.
Perhaps as an illustration of that point, Cheesbrough’s personal LinkedIn profile proudly carries an image of 101 George Street, the world’s tallest prefab which now dominates the Croydon skyline.
As one of the tower’s architects admitted, “We started work on the concept in February 2017 and got planning consent in December the same year. By any standards, that is very quick for a 40-storey building.” Cheesbrough made sure that Croydon had a deserved reputation for being developer-friendly.
Under Cheesbrough, Croydon has experienced difficulties with its Local Plan, which it is having to re-work over its housing targets and which failed to secure planning protections for nearly 100 parks and green spaces around the borough.
Developers wishing to knock down suburban houses and replace them with blocks of flats have been given free rein, including one where one of its directors is married to members of the planning department’s staff. And it was not until this summer, five years after Brick by Brick had been registered, that the council-owned housebuilder had its first application for planning permission rejected – though not by Cheesbrough or one of her officials, but by the committee of elected councillors.
Since Cheesbrough’s brusque introduction to the planning department, the council has tried to offer “a generous retention package” to help recruit and keep planners on staff. In what insiders call “Cheesbrough’s Temple of Dead Dreams”, even that extra cash failed to work.
“The planning department has never been able to secure a stable workforce,” said the source.
“It’s a revolving door.”
Now Cheesbrough, and Murray, will both be using it.
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Great News ! Mind the door doesn’t slap your arse on the way out….let’s hope the rest of the “ Fat Cats “ go as well…..I can never understand why there are so many directors.
Perhaps a generator could rigged up to harness the energy as the door spins. Every little helps…
Apologies, that should have been dynamo…..
That makes sense. I had noticed over the last 2 years that the planning department were often looking to recruit from senior to admin posts. High staff turnover!
With regard to the directors leaving before redundancies may be down to sorting a nice package deal before sitting within a statutory redundancy (pennies). Follow the money!
Lastly I can only think of one word with more directors going….NEXT!
Nick Pendry is off too. NEXT!
Roll up! roll up!
Directors get ya exit package before the 9th Dec, then you only get pennies.
Tick tock…Follow the money!
I actually think that Croydon does not lack Arts organisations and that without someone buying in talent from outside the Borough the residents of all ages and cultures could lay on a fabulous year of culture.
Fully agree Charlotte, It is great news for the borough. No more will our arts organisations be side-lined, as long as the arts forum continues we are a self sufficient bunch – we don’t need promises of money to silence us; to make us all fall in to line. The only reason I’ve been the lone voice shouting about the Councils diabolical handing of Fairfield Halls is because I am not on a string, nervously waiting to see if funding will come my way for a cultural project. Now everyone can have their say… speak out Croydon cultural organisations…was BH Live the best choice for Croydon? Bring back volunteers, bring back local management and local organisations to sit alongside some professional entertainment. Hurrah, best foot forward Croydon.
…now to blockade the M3 to stop those Bournemouth fools getting back to turn the lights on!
David, of course it wasn’t the best idea to have BH Live as the operator, they are completely useless to say the least. However, the council have foolishly thrown so much money at them, why would they turn it down? They have been funded relentlessly by Paula Murray and the council. Also, when will it finally be announced how much the brick by brick cock up of a refurbishment of the Halls really cost? Wait until that real figure is exposed by one of these audit groups currently ripping the council’s books to shreds, then the proverbial will really hit the fan!
As an aside I wonder who’s going to MIPIM in June. Perhaps, when they go to Cannes for their new local authorities, they’ll have a “Croydon Rejects” piss-up for old time’s sake.
Anyone know if BxB have booked their stand yet?
Another example of something that should NEVER have happened. I find the endeavour quite frivolous myself and that’s coming from a private company that will be able to see a cash positive return for all the costs involved of going. Albeit I am happy to attend!
How on earth a civil servant (essentially) found themselves in that environment is quite astonishing.
Heather Cheesbrough has failed as Head of Planning in Croydon.
She allowed herself to be taken in by the planning narcissist, Cllr Paul Scott and in doing so, failed to act as a professional town planner in the interest of the borough and its residents.
Rather that repel Scott’s inflated sense of his own importance, Cheesbrough backed him, she played up to his deep need for excessive attention and admiration from developers and eventually became his apologist.
She defended his misappropriation of housing targets, she was not interested in a planning debate and when dealing directly with residents, she couldn’t conceal her disdain. Latterly, when not joining Scott in a bit of resident-baiting at planning committee meetings she wouldn’t think twice about giving councillors on the hoof advice which often turned out to be complete bollocks.
It now transpires many of her staff had similar concerns about her.
I hope Kerswell thinks really carefully about the credentials and suitability of the new Head of Planning because residents are not going to accept more ineptitude from this Croydon department.
(Ps – who wrote Cheesbrough’s leaving reference? – there are many residents who would have liked to have inputted into it).
I suspect she got glowing references just to get rid of her. It happens more often than realised!
I’m just a normal joe blogs off the street, as the old saying go’s. Why is there no processes or laws in place to stop directors or higher management like Croydon council or larger company’s. From stripping assets / wasting money?
Why are these people not on performance related pay, as some company’s put their employer’s through? No good performance, no large pay check, or benefits package.
Again why are these people not put through a system of. When you leave ( a council ) you may not apply for a position in another for at least a year? Stopping them from fishing for another position whilst the proverbial boat is sinking?
Concidering how many rats are / have jumped ship so far!
Could not the proceeds of crime act be tweaked to include what’s happened / happening to Croydon council. And claw back some payments, assets! From people ( rats ) that have / are jumping? If missmanagement is found to be the cause of this particular & maybe future bankruptcy of other councils?
This might make others think take their positions / duty’s more seriously?
Rather than think they can play a real life game of Monopoly. With other people’s money,
We ran two Croydon Literary Festivals on a shoestring. We did have some help from the Council, and a National Lottery grant, but it was a small team who had to be creative with the little cash we had. Can I have Paula Murray’s job, please?
You can add another Jobs worth director to this growing list, Nick Pendry has announced his departure today, bunch of cowards all of them, If your reading this in Wandsworth, good luck and sorry!!
Is Cheesborough still there after all?
Evidently so. Had you read our coverage of planning matters over the last 12 months, you will have discovered that the Redbridge job offered to Cheesbrough somehow evaporated when the council chief exec who recruited her decided to quit that council. And someone at Croydon allowed her to withdraw her notice.