Did We Have News For You: council’s 2020 financial crash

As 2020 moved through May to August, the local authority had more than the coronavirus to cope with, as the pandemic exposed the authority’s shaky financial position. And Inside Croydon led in its coverage of the cash-strapped Town Hall. Here’s the second part of our review of the year

MAY

Tony Newman: claimed Croydon would not issue a S114 notice. He was wrong

It was May 21 this year when, for the first time, and based on utterly trustworthy sources working in Fisher’s Folly, that we first reported that Croydon Council was “about to do a Northampton”.

It was a reference to the issuing of a Section 114 notice, the legal requirement of a council if it is unable to deliver a balanced budget. Northampton County Council in 2018 had, to that point, been the only local authority to issue a S114 this century.

Of course, Jo Negrini, the £220,000 per year council CEO, and Tony Newman, who was still the leader of the council at this point, went out of their way to rubbish our report. But after two months of coronavirus lockdown, the financial strains on Croydon’s badly managed finances were beginning to show.

Our report that day was the first of a series of exclusives that have been run on Inside Croydon this year based on leaks from council employees, many of them frustrated at the appalling poor judgement of the people supposedly in charge of managing the borough’s services. The response of council directors, such as Negrini? They launched a witch-hunt for whoever was providing this website with real insight into the mounting crisis at Fisher’s Folly.

The pandemic crisis has pushed the council’s already over-stretched finances over the edge

“External auditors have been working in the council offices since yesterday, trawling through the fine detail of the borough’s finances,” our report began.

“For Croydon, the possibility of a Section 114 order is now ‘imminent’, according to council sources,” we continued.

The strains of providing services for 330,000 residents during the coronavirus lockdown was too much, according to our sources. “Things were bad enough before covid,” one said. “Now we really have found ourselves up shit creek without a paddle.”

Negrini was soon issuing a denial to staff about the need for a S114. By the end of this year, Croydon Council will have issued three S114s. And Negrini is no longer chief executive and Newman no longer council leader.

Read more: Council calls in auditors as it faces covid cashflow crisis

Road closures under emergency covid legislation were to become  increasingly controversial throughout 2020

Two other news reports that month also attracted lots of readers, and would be the beginnings of a story which would run throughout the year, with increasing amounts of acrimony and division among residents.

Using emergency covid legislation, we reported on May 1 that the council was to close five roads to motor traffic. “The temporary schemes… aim to reduce rat running in residential roads, improve road safety and better facilitate social distancing.”

Read more: Five roads are to be closed under emergency covid measures

JUNE

Moving in for the kill: having crossed on to the ‘predator-proof’ island, a fox stalks a nesting lapwing at Beddington Farmlands. Pic: Peter Alfrey

Coronavirus had not gone away, of course, and the pandemic generated vastly increased demand for Inside Croydon’s reporting: in June 2020, we had 308,000 page views,  more than double the regular average site traffic.

The most-read article in June was our report based on shocking official figures: “Croydon is one of the worst areas of the country affected by deaths from coronavirus, according to figures from Public Health England.”

But other subjects also caught our growing readership’s avid attention, such as the plight of wildfowl in poorly managed wetlands at Beddington Farmlands in Sutton, and changes proposed for the expansion of East Croydon Station.

As well as the promised extension to Crystal Palace, the tram network might have even linked to an international airport, at Biggin Hill

Two pieces based on the work of a couple of our readers which also drew huge numbers of readers: Anthony Norris-Watson had painstakingly put together what we dubbed “Fantasy Trams”, with a map of the tram network showing “what might have been” had various promised extensions ever been built over the last 20 years.

And research by Stephanie Offer, conducted in response to the global Black Lives Matter movement, discovered that Croydon’s biggest slave owner in fact had links to the Queen.

Read more: Croydon’s biggest slave owner was ancestor of the Queen

JULY

Sean Fitzsimons: Crisis? What crisis?

We had begun using the “Croydon In Crisis” tag a month earlier (to which the council’s £42,000 chair of non-scrutiny, Sean Fitzsimons, objected, claiming that we had some kind of “agenda”), but with each passing day, it appeared that the crisis was getting ever deeper.

The most-read report of July was another Inside Croydon exclusive based on information from trusted sources within Fisher’s Folly (you’re only ever as good as your sources…), when we revealed that Tony Newman and Jo Negrini were going to pay for their mistakes by… cutting the jobs of 500 other people.

Of course, the deadly duo immediately denied the report and attempted to discredit this website and its journalism. And then they carried on with the cuts, a process which we also discovered they had started in January – long before coronavirus came along to be a happy cover story for their longer-term financial mismanagement.

As we reported at the time, “Croydon Council is to launch wide-ranging consultations tomorrow, July 1, as it begins what in councilspeak they like to describe as a “restructuring”, but what in plain English will mean that more than 500 council staff will be losing their jobs in the next few weeks.”

Even then, Negrini and Newman came up short: another 180 frontline posts at the council were to be added to the redundancy list, with a process that began just before Christmas.

Read more: Croydon in crisis: 500 jobs to go in council ‘reorganisation’

The comet, a bright spot of light, seen looking north to London in July

In other news, Croydon residents were looking skywards in July,  with the arrival of Comet Neowise. Graham Cluer, a member of the Croydon Astronomical Society, provided the photographs of this rarely seen “dirty snowball.

AUGUST

The silly season, where nothing newsworthy is supposed to happen. Except in Croydon.

Jo Negrini: fond of promoting herself in puff pieces in the trade press. Less fond of answering legitimate questions from the public

Tony Newman and his Croydon cronies had packed their suitcases and headed off for their holibobs in the middle of two great crises in the borough: coronavirus was still with us and the financial problems at the council unresolved. Newman would call no meetings of his Town Hall Labour group to brief even his colleagues on the impending disaster between July and the very end of September.

The council’s “health and well-being board” had not held any meetings, virtual or otherwise, since February. And there would be no meeting of the full council right until the end of September. As the doomed Jim Callaghan once ill-advisedly said, “Crisis? What crisis?” And we all know what happened to him.

Jo Negrini, the £220,000 council chief executive, was on holiday, too, when we ran our latest exclusive report revealing that she was soon to quit Croydon. What we didn’t know at that time was that the delay in her departure was because her lawyers were negotiating a bumper pay-off, and both sides were waiting for a national localauthorities pay settlement to be implemented, to help bump up “Negreedy’s” golden handshake by a few grand more.

This one article has been read more than 36,000 times,  making it the most-read news report on this website in the whole of 2020, when all sorts of traffic records were being broken.

You can read it for yourself here: Croydon In Crisis: Council in disarray as Negrini quits

Read more: That Was The Year That Was: Jan to Apr 2020’s most-read stories

Tomorrow: the final instalment of our annual review, as the wheels fall off Newman’s wretched administration but everyone carries on as if nothing has changed. And covid-19 makes an unwelcome comeback


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 inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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