Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, on how the chief architect of the council’s disastrous housing policy is trying to salvage his reputation
Paul Scott, part of the clique which led Croydon Council to bankruptcy, broke cover at a virtual Town Hall meeting this week in a blatant attempt to pin some of the blame for the failings of loss-making house-builders Brick by Brick on a council director.
Tuesday’s extraordinary council meeting (the latest one) was required for the finance director, Lisa Taylor, to lay out the terms of the Section 114 notice she had issued last month, and to confirm that a second such notice was to be issued the following morning.
Scott and fellow members of the old leadership cabal have been keeping a low profile since the collapse of their six-year regime with the resignation at the end of October of Simon Hall as the cabinet member for finance, swiftly followed by council leader Tony Newman’s resignation. Indeed, Hall did not even bother to log-in to Tuesday’s significant financial meeting – the first called by a London borough to discuss a S114 notice in 20 years.
Scott, however, did, and he was given the opportunity to point the finger of blame for Brick by Brick’s catastrophic failure at Taylor.
Brick by Brick was established in 2015 to build homes in the borough, on land bought from the council using huge borrowings from the council. Grant Thornton, the council auditors, confirmed last month that Brick by Brick had not paid back a penny of the loans and had never made any profits, short-changing the people of Croydon so far to the tune of £110million.
A missing £36million from Brick by Brick in this financial year was given by Taylor as one of the significant “risks” of the council going bust when she issued the Section 114 notice on November 11.
Scott and his family have invested their political reputations, such as they are, on the Brick by Brick failed experiment. Scott, when the chair of planning, whipped Labour committee colleagues to grant permission to Brick by Brick schemes. “If one fails, they all fail,” Scott told planning committee members, in a serious breach of planning law which forbids any form of whipping.
Alison Butler, Scott’s wife, was the cabinet member for housing on the Labour-controlled council. Soon after Brick by Brick was formed, she wallowed in the claim of her party after she gave a speech to Labour’s annual conference lauding the achievement of Croydon Council in establishing the house-building company which she promised would solve the borough’s housing crisis. In five years on Butler’s watch, Brick by Brick delivered just three purpose-built council flats.
Now Scott used the council meeting to shift the blame away from his wife, himself and their closest friends. Delivering more of a speech than a question, it was his excuse to spotlight Taylor’s involvement in the clusterfuck that is Brick by Brick.
Scott glowered into the lens of his digital camera. “Brick by Brick has many sites and many hundreds more homes than is being delivered at the moment across the borough, helping to tackle the housing crisis, of course.” The mantra added at the end of that sentence came more out of habit than of any real conviction.
Addressing Taylor, who was taking questions from councillors regarding the S114, Scott plunged a verbal knife: “As we all know, you were a director at Brick by Brick…”. He paused, presumably for effect “… for three years and remained one of our senior council contacts with the arm’s length company.
“Given your depth of involvement…” Scott said, slowly, with a sense that he was twisting that verbal knife, adding, “… knowledge and experience with Brick by Brick, what do you think is their capacity to repay, maybe only in part, the development loans and dividends owed in this financial year and moving forward during the period of the medium-term financial plan?”
Remote meetings are unremittingly dull, tame affairs, but Scott’s prolonged perambulation to get to his question actually drew what passes these days for a heckle from the chamber.
“He could only have put that question in the way that he did to try to shift some blame to Taylor,” a Katharine Street source said.
“Woe betide any councillor when Newman and Scott were in charge if they dared suggest even the mildest of criticisms of a council officer. That was how Jo Negrini was able to get away with so much for so long – she was supposed to be immune from criticism.
“But here was Scott using a question as an attempt to drag Lisa Taylor down with Brick by Brick – and to deflect the blame away from himself and Alison.”
Taylor is one of a series of council officials who have served on the board of Brick by Brick; she eventually stood down in January 2019.
She responded to Scott by saying that she could not comment, since Brick by Brick’s accounts have not been finalised.
Inside Croydon understands that the company accounts, which ought to have been released in August (the company is in breach of part of its loan agreements as a result), may now be published in the last week of this year – probably in the hope that between Christmas and New Year, no one will be paying much attention.
Last week Colm Lacey, Brick by Brick’s chief exec, was kicked off the board of directors together with the chairman, Martyn Evans. The council has replaced them with two of the financial consultants who have been trying to help Croydon out of the crisis of its own making.
“Lacey treated us with contempt,” a councillor told Inside Croydon on condition of anonymity. “He seemed to think he was above any scrutiny. While Negrini and Newman were around, he was.
“He would withhold financial details and he lied to the council scrutiny committee. The Report in the Public Interest found huge holes in the company’s financial management – what makes Scott think that Lacey will have been any more forthcoming to Lisa at occasional board meetings than he ever was with councillors?
“If Scott thinks he’s going to pass the buck that easily, he’s mistaken.”
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