Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on the council leadership’s reaction to yesterday’s announcements from the local government ministry
“We have a very long way to go,” the council leader, Hamida Ali, said, more than once, as she accepted the findings of government’s rapid review of Croydon’s finances and the way the local authority is run.
Not that she had much choice.
Responding to yesterday’s publication of the review team’s report and the imposition of an “Improvement Panel” by Whitehall following the council going bust in November, Ali said, “We fully accept the findings of the rapid review and the serious concerns around the council’s financial position and past governance.
“Since I became leader, I have been clear that my absolute priority is to get Croydon’s finances back on track and strengthen our governance so that we can deliver good essential services and value for money for residents.
“I welcome the review team’s recognition of the extensive action we are already undertaking to tackle our financial challenges, and the determination shared by my cabinet, myself, and officers throughout the organisation, to put things right.
“We have continued to make strong progress against our improvement plans and while we have a very long way to go, I am confident that we are on the right track to become the council we want and need to be.”
Ali avoided any mention of some of the more pointed criticism of the way Croydon Council was run when she was a cabinet member under the discredited former leader, Tony Newman and his ruling clique.
It was the report’s confirmation that Newman’s cabinet had forced officials to re-write reports to disguise the severity of the council’s financial and business positions which shocked some.
“That officers were routinely being asked to re-word cabinet reports to present the most favourable picture and the extent of the poor budget management and poor financial control is quite shocking,” said Robert Ward, a Conservative councillor who is vice-chair of the scrutiny committee.
“It is disappointing that those responsible are not being held more firmly to account.”
Ali said that she had already met with the chair of the Improvement Panel which had been appointed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, saying that, “I really welcome the panel and their role to bring their expertise to bear through challenge and advice as we seek to drive forward and deliver our renewal plans at pace.
“We have already made significant progress but there is a long way to go and we will continue to engage fully with the panel and MHCLG as we continue this vital work.”
For his part, the panel chair, Tony McArdle, said, “We are here to guide and support Croydon in turning this position around.
“There is much to do and we have already begun work. We look forward to being part of the recovery that everyone we have met assures us is their aim. It will certainly be ours.”
McArdle’s first report back to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State, is due in this Friday, when he and his colleagues must give their thoughts on the £150million bail-out capitalisation direction that Ali and her Croydon colleagues have asked for. Without that, the council seems unlikely to be able to deliver a balanced budget – as it is legally required to do, for this financial year or for 2021-2022.
“Turning this around will be a tremendous challenge,” Ward said.
Given Ward’s position on the scrutiny committee – which was also criticised in the rapid review for not being questioning enough of some of the information they were provided with – his comments in this respect are particularly concerning.
“The council’s poor track record in financial management will not be remedied overnight. Changing the culture of secrecy must be the starting point,” Ward said.
“Without objective and reliable information, we are all in the dark.”
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