CROYDON IN CRISIS: The terms of reference for an independent investigation into the disastrous decisions and mismanagement which led to the council going broke have been leaked to Inside Croydon.
STEVEN DOWNES reports
It might be seen as appropriate, given Croydon Council’s efforts in the Theatre of the Absurd, that the latest step in the investigation into the mismanagement of the borough is to be a sub-Beckett offering: Waiting for Negrini.
As exclusively revealed by Inside Croydon last month, Jo Negrini, the chief executive who led the council to the brink of bankruptcy before exiting Fisher’s Folly with a £440,000 pay-off, will not be compelled to give evidence to an independent investigation being paid for by the Local Government Association.
“Negreedy” will get an invitation to be interviewed. But then the LGA’s investigator, Richard Penn, will have to wait to see whether the self-described “regeneration practitioner” will agree to take part in the process.
This is confirmed in Penn’s terms of reference, which were distributed to council employees last week. The three-page document was not shared, however, with all elected councillors. Some councillors are expected to be subject of the investigation.
Given the document’s somewhat banal content – much of which has been included in already public council reports and discussed at public meetings – it seems odd, in the spirit of new openness and transparency that we are told now exists at the council – that the terms of reference were not routinely published on the council website.
But Inside Croydon has obtained a copy of the document – for the “initial and independent investigation into corporate management actions, organisational systems and environment in response to the Report in the Public Interest” – which sets out what Penn is expected to examine in the course of what should be a month-long process.
Last week, this website reported how council officials were ordering journalists to “remove any reference to Jo Negrini” in their reporting of the investigation. Yet the terms of reference makes it clear that Negrini, will be “invited” to take part: “Previous chief officers will also be invited to be interviewed,” the terms of reference state.
Since leaving Croydon Council, Negrini has formed a company, Total Place Ltd, based at North Cross Road, East Dulwich, where she is managing director in the business of “development of building projects” and “other specialised construction activities”.
But with Penn conducting his interviews remotely, it should not be too much of an inconvenience for Negrini to give up some of her time to explain how she managed to add more than £500million to the council’s debt mountain in three years.
“If she ever wants to work in the public sector, she’ll agree to be interviewed,” according to one Katharine Street source today.
In an entirely unscientific online poll conducted by Inside Croydon, 99.1 per cent of ur readers said that Negrini should be interviewed as part of the investigation (goodness knows what the other 0.9 per cent were thinking…).
Among those “chief officers” being “invited” by Penn to be interviewed is understood to be Richard Simpson, who resigned as the council’s chief finance officer two years ago.
Another former council employee being asked to be interviewed is Rob Henderson, who for just over a year was exec director in charge of children’s services and education, a failing department which spent more than £30million following an adverse Ofsted inspection in 2017.
Children’s services was singled out in the auditors’ Report In The Public Interest for spending too much money – described as failing “to manage demand”. Henderson’s insight into the situation could prove instructive.
Simpson, it is understood, has already provided evidence to other investigations being conducted into the collapse of the council’s finances, which resulted last month in the issuing of a Section 114 notice – making Croydon only the second local authority in 20 years to go bust.
As the terms of reference state, “Much more needs to be understood as to how and why the council has arrived in this situation and not simply what has happened.”
The terms of reference also explain to council staff that they can contribute to Penn’s investigation, through a specially anonymised email system. Given that recent staff surveys have expressed “anger and vitriol towards senior management”, some of the responses to Penn could prove very interesting.
Penn’s terms of reference state: “This investigation and its report will result in two important outcomes. The first will be to form the understanding of how and why the council has arrived in this situation, and the second is to demonstrate the seriousness of the council’s intent to establish a new organisational culture that has learning and accountability at its heart.”
Penn is expected to conclude his initial investigation, and deliver a report to council, by the end of this month.
The terms of reference conclude: “If relevant, the interim chief executive…”, meaning Katherine Kerswell, “… will consider if any other formal proceedings are required to be commenced following receipt of the report.”
That could include delivering the report to the Crown Prosecution Service if there is suspicion of any criminal activity having taken place warranting police investigation.
There is an offence under Common Law called Misconduct in public office. It carries a maximum life sentence in prison.
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