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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