The last four months of last year saw the Labour-run council implode, with resignations, reshuffles and a controversial golden handshake of £440,000 for the chief exec. Editor STEVEN DOWNES rounds off our review of the past year
Covid-19 hadn’t gone away. It was just lying in wait for Croydon’s children to go back to school at the end of the summer.
As we reported on September 9, “The figures published last night by Public Health England suggest that Croydon, like the rest of the country, is beginning to experience a second up-tick in coronavirus cases – just as the government has been encouraging the public to return to their workplaces, to go down the pub or to ‘eat out to help out’, and with children starting to go back to school.”
In Croydon during the whole of August, there had been 117 reported cases of coronavirus infections. According to Public Health England, 52 new cases of covid-19 reported in Croydon in just the first eight days of September. Those figures have been on the rise ever since: on a single day this week, Wednesday December 30, Croydon had 574 positive cases for coronavirus reported.
Readers had an avid interest in covid-19, and in particular in our coverage of the sometimes unreported cases of the virus in Croydon schools, where whole classes were having to be quarantined when pupils or staff tested positive. One of our reports, about outbreaks of the virus in a couple of primary schools, was read nearly 20,000 times in September.
On September 16, we reported on the opening of a covid-19 testing centre in New Addington, a move which was to prove unpopular with locals, who regarded the arrangements for the centre – close to the shops and leisure centre – as a health hazard.
On September 7, Inside Croydon broke the story of Jo Negrini’s £440,000 “golden handshake” from the council. The council leader, Tony Newman, tried to deny that his administration had paid this gobsmacking amount, at a time when they were laying off more than 400 frontline council workers. Council staff, and even Labour councillors, only discovered the full extent of the pay-off to “Negreedy” from reading Inside Croydon.
In a poll conducted by this website earlier, 96 per cent of respondents said that the now former chief executive should receive no such reward for failure.
As we reported at the time, the deal “is thought to be one of the biggest pay-offs ever by a local authority in England”.
The total included nearly a quarter of a million pounds in pension contributions, paid to take 59-year-old Negrini to her statutory retirement age.
Some council staff who had had to work with the self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner” suggested that she had been out of control by the time she agreed to leave.
In case you might have forgotten, “In Negrini’s four years as Croydon CEO, the council built up record debts of £1.5billion, while its cash reserve had been allowed to run-down to just £10million, prompting pre-coronavirus warnings from the council’s own auditors, as well as from CIPFA, the body of local government finance directors.”
In the power vacuum that followed, and with the council’s budget overspend rising by the day – the latest estimate at this stage was that it had reached £60million – it looked obvious that Newman and his numpties were losing control and didn’t have much of a clue about what was happening.
First Shifa Mustafa, a Negrini appointee as the council’s exec director for Place, was installed as the council’s interim CEO, only for that decision to be countermanded days later by Whitehall, aided by the Local Government Association, as troubleshooter Katherine Kerswell was parachuted in (another important Inside Croydon exclusive).
As we reported on September 10, Mustafa left the top job “after a period in charge briefer than Chris Cowdrey’s time as England cricket captain”.
We wrote, “A hastily arranged meeting of Croydon Council’s appointments committee will convene this morning to rubber-stamp the appointment of Katherine Kerswell as the interim chief executive of the authority.
“Kerswell… will thus become the third CEO in the space of a fortnight at the crisis-hit council.”
It was not long before Newman himself had given up. He announced he was resigning as council leader on October 12.
As we reported at the time: “It was barely 10 minutes in, and this was the first scheduled full meeting of the council to be held since July, but they might as well have stopped it there and then. The main business of the evening had been announced and nothing else really mattered: Tony Newman is standing down as council leader.”
According to our sources, Newman was forced out by Labour Party officials “in the best interests of the party”.
Within days, he had been replaced as council leader by his protégée and Woodside ward colleague, Hamida Ali, who assembled a “new” council cabinet which looked remarkably like Newman’s old one. Although to be fair to Ali, there wasn’t much to inspire about the alternative candidates for leader. In a poll run on Inside Croydon, more than 50 per cent of our readers effectively voted for “None of the above” when given the options of the possible leadership candidates.
And the day after Ali was selected for the top job by fewer than two dozen of her Labour councillor colleagues, the biggest bombshell to drop yet was produced: auditors Grant Thornton published their Report In The Public Interest, with damning criticism of the way the council had been run.
The council had “corporate blindness”, the auditors said, as they highlighted that Newman and Negrini had between them ignored five warnings over the previous three years about the parlous state of the borough’s reserves.
The auditors also confirmed that the council’s finances might have been a whole lot better had the loss-making, council-owned house-builders, Brick by Brick, managed to make any of the interest payments, loan repayments or handed over some of the profits they had made since 2015.
As it was, having borrowed £250million for Brick by Brick, the council was now owed around £110million. Brick by Brick’s contribution to the council’s finances was, Grant Thornton had carefully calculated, £0.
Another report, compiled by a local authorities consultant appointed in May when the council’s financial position was becoming increasingly urgent, found 75 instances where Croydon was not being run according to “best practice”.
It seemed, though, that the bunting had been put out around the borough. Our report on the sacking from Ali’s cabinet of the husband and wife couple Alison Butler and Paul Scott was read more than 10,000 times – the second most-read article that month, reflecting the duo’s unpopularity after their involvement with council housing policy, planning and Brick by Brick.
There had been 325,000 page views of Inside Croydon in September, 336,000 in October, but November saw all sorts of site records broken with 407,000 for the month, 29,000 of them for one article on November 11, when the council bowed to the inevitable and issued a Section 114 notice, effectively declaring itself bankrupt.
In her formal notice, Lisa Taylor, the council’s finance chief, wrote, “Since the 23 October 2020, mindful of my statutory duty under Section 114, I have kept the need to issue a S114 notice under constant review.
“It is now my professional judgement as the [chief finance officer] for Croydon Council that in the current financial year (2020-2021), despite the ongoing conversations with [Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government] and the presentation of amendments to the General Fund budget at Cabinet on the 21 September 2020, that the forecast expenditure continues to significantly exceed resources, and plans to rectify this financial position are insufficient, leaving the council with a significant unfunded financial deficit this year.
“Therefore I have a duty to issue all members of the council with this S114 notice.”
Croydon thus became only the second local authority in England in 20 years to issue a S114. To date, and despite the demands of additional council spending this year to deal with covid-19, Croydon is the only council in the country to have issued a S114. Draw from that what you will.
Taylor identified as a significant “risk” to the council’s budgeting this year the £36million which they ought to be receiving from Brick by Brick. Taylor could not guarantee that any of that money would be paid over.
In this grim time, there were some lighter moments, such as when old-new council leader Ali found herself woefully out of her depth in a live BBC Radio London interview with Vanessa Feltz.
You can listen to the car crash interview here:
We also managed to catch those rogues working at Brick by Brick fiddling their employers’ online reviews – a strictly unethical and banned practice. We described it as “online onanism”.
As we reported on November 7: “There has been a flurry of warm and positive reviews about Brick by Brick posted online in the past three weeks – since about the time that the council’s auditors reported that the house-builders had failed to pay over £110million in interest repayments and promised profits to the council.
“Many of the most recent ‘excellent’ reviews – which have contributed to BxB getting a Google rating of 3.9/5 – contrast markedly to others, which are very critical of the company.
“Yet despite Google rules that ban this form of online onanism, it is clear that many of the 5-star reviews appear to have been written by Brick by Brick staffers. Others seem to have been posted by contractors who have worked with Brick by Brick. There are others which share a distinctive family name with senior BxB staff.”
And all the while, the coronavirus crisis was getting worse, here in Croydon as well as across the country.
As we reported on December 20, “In Croydon, there have been 1,764 new cases of coronavirus infections in the past week, a near-doubling of the numbers from the week before, reflecting the rapidly worsening situation across the capital and parts of southern England, where a variant strain of the virus has been spreading.”
Just in the past week, we reported that over Christmas weekend – December 25, 26 and 27 – there were 1,500 new cases of coronavirus reported in Croydon, creating a real risk that Mayday Hospital, despite new quarantine isolation measures introduced since the first lockdown, could be overwhelmed with new patients with the deadly virus.
But there were some bright spots.
Like the white-tailed eagle spotted over Coulsdon. The eagle is part of a re-wilding and re-introduction scheme of Britain’s largest bird of prey, based in the Isle of Wight.
The eagle is the second rare and exciting visitor to the area in recent weeks, after another re-introduction bird, the white crane, was spotted at Beddington Farmlands in October.
Both news reports drew large audiences from Inside Croydon’s ever-growing band of readers.
For 2020 had been a harrowing and absorbing year for Croydon news, one which Inside Croydon shared with 1.4million readers, who had read 3.0million pages on the website over the previous 12 months – nearly double this website’s previous highest annual figures.
There’s been a lot of hard work involved, and loads of help from contributors – some named, some who preferred to remain anonymous – and sources, some of whom put their jobs at risk to ensure that what has been going on inside Croydon is known and understood by as many people as possible.
Here’s to a healthier, but just as newsworthy, 2021. Happy New Year, Croydon.
- 2010 to 2021: Inside Croydon has been delivering local community service and local community news for 10 years. To support independent local journalism in Croydon, please sign up today as a supporter. Click here for more details
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and BBC London News
- Inside Croydon named Journalist of the Year at 2018 Anna Kennedy Online Autism Heroes Awards
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: For three consecutive years, 2017, 2018 and 2019, Inside Croydon has been the source for award-winning nominations in Private Eye magazine’s annual celebration of civic cock-ups
- Inside Croydon had 1.6million pages viewed by 721,000 unique visitors in 2019