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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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
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