Reshuffle puts execs in high-stakes game of musical chairs

Katherine Kerswell’s top-heavy restructure, with five corporate directors replacing… five executive directors. But no places for two key figures in the previous regime

EXCLUSIVE: Leaked council documents suggest that the interim chief executive has already made her mind up as to who she wants in her top team. By STEVEN DOWNES

Katherine Kerswell, Croydon’s £192,474 per year interim CEO, looks set to demote one of her organisation’s most senior executive directors, someone who was among her predecessor’s closest colleagues and who was at the centre of the council’s financial meltdown, while she is planning the merger of two of the authority’s biggest directorates in a reorganisation which chips away at the bankrupt council’s £66milion overspend this year.

The directorate merger could see two exec directors, Guy van Dichele and Shifa Mustafa, forced to compete for one job, in a high stakes game of musical executive chairs.

The position of Jacqueline Harris-Baker as the council’s executive director of resources, meanwhile, looked untenable since the moment she was handed that job by Jo Negrini early in 2019. Harris-Baker had been the borough solicitor and was not known to have any of the accountancy experience or qualifications which would normally be associated with the role managing the borough’s finances.

Jacqueline Harris-Baker: trained as a lawyer, given director of resources job

“It was a bad appointment from Day One,” a council staffer told Inside Croydon. “Jacqueline was clearly out of her depth. But Negrini wanted to surround herself with people who were unlikely to question her decisions.”

Very early in Kerswell’s tenure, after she replaced Negrini in the council top job in September, she began referring to Harris-Baker in public meetings as the “council solicitor”, and delegated the relatively menial task of handling councillors’ apologies for absence to her colleague.

Now, according to council documents leaked to Inside Croydon, it appears that Kerswell has used the management reorganisation announced last week to make it impossible for Harris-Baker to continue in the now re-titled corporate director of resources job.

Under Kerswell’s blueprint, whoever holds that position will be the council’s most senior accountancy professional, its Section 151 officer – something which Harris-Baker is unqualified to hold. The current S151 officer is Lisa Taylor, who had the onerous responsibility of issuing the council’s Section 114 notice last month to declare that Croydon is unable to balance its budget.

Legal move: Harris-Baker described as council solicitor in last nights cabinet papers

Taylor’s own part in the council’s financial collapse may not be entirely without fault, but for now – with a recruitment freeze at Fisher’s Folly – it appears likely that she will continue in that role and in charge of the resources directorate under Kerswell.

Although the reorganisation papers were only released last week, it seems that Harris-Baker’s demotion may have already happened. She was listed on council papers for last night’s cabinet meeting as “council solicitor and monitoring officer”.

Kerswell’s restructuring is already being regarded as a missed opportunity, since following her appointment of Elaine Jackson to the newly created role as assistant CEO, as Inside Croydon reported last week, what it amounts to is the scrapping of five executive director roles, all on salaries of £150,000 per year or more, and replacing them with… five corporate directors, each of them likely to be paid at least £150,000 per year.

Below the exec/corporate director tier of management, the council currently has 20 directors, many of them on six-figure salaries. This is where Kerswell has chosen to make some cuts, with their number to be reduced to 15.

Below that, the council’s 79 heads of service (on salaries between £80,000 and £100,000) are to be reduced in number to 71.

This appears to be a somewhat modest restructuring of the upper echelons of the council management in an organisation which over the course of 2020 to 2021 is shedding nearly 600 frontline jobs – about one-third of its total workforce.

“I feel we should be taking the opportunity to completely flatten out the structure and have a properly radical rethink about how we operate and how we engage with the community,” one staffer told Inside Croydon.

How the merged health and place directorate will look after reorganisation, mixing roads, bin collections, arts and culture, all together with housing and planning

“This restructure proposal lacks any imagination, it is simply attempting to manage in essentially very similar ways to how local authorities have been set up traditionally, with a rigid hierarchy.

“It’s interesting that while Labour councillors are looking at ideas for a more collegiate or committee style of working, on the officer side we are being asked to accept a top-heavy structure – there’s the same number of exec directors and marginally fewer heads of service.”

Guy Van Dichele: a big job is about to get even bigger

There is a suggestion that the restructure proposals had to be ready to go by today, as part of the Renewal Plan being submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – basically a begging letter from Croydon asking to borrow another £150million between now and 2023, on top of the £1.5billion debt mountain that accumulated under Negrini and the discredited ex-council leader, Tony Newman.

The merging of two of the largest existing directorates – Place together with Health, Wellbeing and Adults – under a single “corporate director”, looks like an unworkable recipe for disaster. It could also be an admission that Croydon’s “growth agenda”, which to some degree led to its financial collapse, is being firmly junked.

As Kerswell moves around the deck chairs on her Titanic, it looks like there will be two existing executive directors chasing after just one corporate director seat once the band stops playing…

Van Dichele, the current Health, Wellbeing and Adults exec, was already on a salary that topped £200,000 per year under Negrini, but under the most testing of circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic is generally reckoned to have had a good 2020.

Shifa Mustafa: Westfield and Brick by Brick disasters occurred on her watch

The same cannot be said, however, for Mustafa, or Mustaffridaysoff, as she is known among staff for her tendency to work just a four-day week. At one point Mustafa, another hand-picked Negrini appointee, looked poised to be appointed by Newman as the borough’s interim CEO when her former boss headed out the exit of her executive suite with a £440,000 reward for failure.

And then MHCLG parachuted-in Kerswell.

When Negrini was promoted to CEO in 2016, Mustafa was recruited to oversee the delivery of the £1.4billion Westfield shopping centre and see to it that the council’s new house-builders, Brick by Brick, delivered hundreds of new homes and millions in profits for the borough.

Those pipe dreams now lie in ruins, with the council’s finances alongside them. It seems hard to imagine that record would inspire much confidence to take on a far larger portfolio of council services.

Read more: Council staff ‘are angry, upset and want answers’
Read more: Kerswell’s management savings plan: no change at the top
Read more: Council forced to declare itself bankrupt
Read more: Officials to investigate possible wrong-doing at council

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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10 Responses to Reshuffle puts execs in high-stakes game of musical chairs

  1. Geoff Bailey says:

    why is it the the Chief Ex gets over £42000 a year more than the Prime Minster?

  2. Maverick says:

    Some may think this is a step in the right direction, but when you take onboard the number of staff who have been made redundant or lost their jobs over the last eight years alone, but the number of senior officers has not reduced significantly. Surely less staff should mean less management would be required…As a me it looks like those at the bottom gets shit on every time, I’m sure you will find they do more of an honest days work than those at the top.

  3. Joe Clark says:

    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. When Ms Kerswell came in, we thought maybe, just maybe, it might be good that a new broom comes in and sweeps all the old shite (Negreedy relics) away. Good that Mustaffridaysoff could be on its way out, but giving more responsibility to the underqualified, over-promoted Negreedy puppet Steve Iles, well, it looks like Ms Kerswell is just a continuation of the old Mickey Mouse organisation!

    • Maverick says:

      Well said Joe, I’m singing from the same hymn sheet as you, it’s not what you know …it’s who you know ! But would you expect anything different?

      • Joe Clark says:

        Hi Maverick, i certainly wouldn’t have expected anything different from the old regime, i had a faint hope things might be different under Ms Kerswell, looks like that hope has been quickly diminished.

  4. Apart from some essential services, the Place department is the department that serves the residents of Croydon the least. We need substantial changes in Place from top down. At the heart of this, employees in Place must remember serving residents must be one of their top priorities.

    When I read the following, my heart sinks:

    “ Mustafa, another hand-picked Negrini appointee, looked poised to be appointed by Newman as the borough’s interim CEO when her former boss headed out the exit of her executive suite with a £440,000 reward for failure.”

  5. David Simons says:

    Rearranging the deck chairs wont stop this ship sinking. A experienced leader of the Council – preferably an elected Mayor – needs to tell those in the ivory tower to step outside and deal with the real issues. The state of the high street, the train station and entry points in to our borough that are less than welcoming, the homeless, the gangs, the lack of cultural ambition, the appalling arrogance of those in charge and contempt for which they hold local residents – it all needs addressing now. Croydon Council needs Croydon people in its management team, how many of the directors are Croydon born and bred? How may have real connections and passion for our town? How many simply drive in and drive out? For how many is it simply a job?

  6. This is clealy a step in the right direction. It sends the right message – which is so important. Those who call for a ‘flatter structure’ are muisguided, I feel. This is normally what junior staff want, but managing such disconnected and dislocated services in a local authority, where not all parts feel members of the whole needs strong, clear control.

  7. Lewis White says:

    A big organisation like Croydon with so many work areas, with large budgets, big impacts on people and the environment, needs effective management. That means– quite a few senior managers. Too few managers means managers who are just figureheads.

    So called flat structures are in my opinion not effective. Yes, we need structures which allow people to develop their skills, knowledge, and take initiative.

    In my considered opinion, the key need is for people at all levels in the organisation who have trained in and know deeply –and care about– the subjects for which they are responsible.

    For example, which an be translated to any vocation or job area, including teaching and social work, if you have a love of architecture as a school student, and study to eventually become an architect (over 5 years) , and rise in experience and then responsibility for bigger projects, bigger budgets and more people over a period of years to become a senior architect…. well, that must be right.

    Professionalism is a desirable concept–but people need a blend of vocation plus training plus experience plus ability to deal with problems (and avoid as many as possible) to become an effective professional.

    No senior manager can be everything or know everything about every aspect of the work of the people in the teams below them, but they should know a lot about a lot, and be able to provide a framework for their sub-managers and staff to work to their best, and thrive. Generic “managers” who know little about specific subject areas are unlikely to be nearly as effective.

    The key, cruch thing is whether the manager knows a good job or a bad job.
    The people who draw up specifications and contracts need to know what they are doing and signing off –or it all ends up in tears.

    Look at the bad examples of procurement around 20 years or so ago, under PFI. Yet there were no doubt also good PFI projects.

    Too few managers is dangerous. Too many is expensive. At the risk of mixed metaphors, too many cooks spoil the broth. With too few, the broth gets burnt or boils over.

    We need cooks who can cook. And I don’t mean the books.

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