CROYDON IN CRISIS: Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on the growing row over council secrecy over Brick by Brick and the fire sale of property assets
The secrecy over the consequences of the council’s plan to wind-down failed housing developer Brick by Brick, at a cost of at least £100million to the borough’s Council Tax-payers, has prompted a senior opposition councillor to question the sincerity of Town Hall leader Hamida Ali’s promises to reform the local authority.
As revealed by Inside Croydon last week, the proposals for the future of Brick by Brick and losses of at least £100million are to be discussed at a (virtual) meeting of the council’s scrutiny committee tomorrow night. But vital financial details have been withheld from the majority of the borough’s councillors and all its residents, only available to a handful of council figures in what is called the Part B report.
Today, denied access to the Part B report, Jason Cummings, the deputy leader of the opposition Conservative group at the Town Hall, asked, “How ‘open and transparent is this council?”
Cummings referred to promises made by Hamida Ali when she took over as council leader in October, soon after her predecessor Tony Newman quit after leading the borough to the brink of bankruptcy. “When Councillor Ali replaced the now-discredited Councillor Newman as leader of Croydon Council, one of the first things she did was to pledge ‘new ways of working’,” Cummings said.
“One of these was: ‘We will aim to become a much more transparent, open and honest council. We will involve residents in our decision making’.
“This week, her statement is ringing particularly hollow,” Cummings said.
All administrations of all councils have used confidential Part B reports to try to keep parts of their business out of the glare of public scrutiny. “Commercial confidentiality” is the usual excuse, which overlooks the fact that vast sums of public money are often involved.
When Cummings and the Tories had control of the Town Hall, up to 2014, they kept all the financial wheeling and dealing over the costs of Bernard Wetherill House, the council office building, top secret and denied access to the figures to Labour councillors.
The building became known as Fisher’s Folly, named after the former Conservative leader of the council, Mike Fisher, when it eventually emerged that in their secret deal with builder John Laing under their own disastrous property speculation scheme, called CCURV, Croydon paid £150million for the shiny new office block – about three times as much as similar office developments in south London at that time.
It meant that Fisher’s Folly ended up costing more to build per square foot of office space than The Shard.
Understandably frustrated and annoyed at such a wanton waste of public money, in 2014, when campaigning in that year’s local elections, Croydon Labour’s manifesto, approved by Newman, promised “the most open and transparent council in the history of Croydon”.
Like so many others, it was a promise soon discarded and forgotten.
And now, within a few weeks of taking the Town Hall top job, Hamida Ali appears set to break her own promise of being “much more transparent, open and honest”.
Cummings said, “Councillor Ali and her cabinet are going to make a decision about selling assets, but they won’t tell you what they are. They are going to make a decision about the future of a company which owes you more than £200million and they won’t tell you what impact it will have.
“So, how ‘involved’ do you feel?”
And Cummings added, “The future of Brick by Brick has been subject to huge speculation as to the part it has played in bankrupting our council.
“Brick by Brick has more than £200million of loans it has received from Croydon Council, most of which Councillor Stuart King confirmed at the last full council, are still in default.
“The Part A papers reveal that Brick by Brick will continue to trade for a while and finish building out some of its sites. This is apparently the ‘best’ option.
“All the figures and impact of that, though, are in the Part B papers. A decision is being made but you, the very people who have to bear the consequences of that decision, are not being told what its impact will be. They know. They don’t want you to know.”
Cummings is also concerned about the fire sale of other council assets – thought to include property such as the Croydon Park Hotel, the Colonnades on Purley Way, one or two of the borough’s dumps, up to five library buildings, perhaps even Fisher’s Folly itself, and other land and buildings, some of which had been earmarked for development by blundering Brick by Brick.
Not unreasonably, Cummings feels that before making any decision, councillors really ought to have some idea of which properties are to be flogged off.
“We have known for some time that this list exists,” Cummings said.
“Councillors have asked multiple times in council meetings for the list to be made public. It hasn’t been.
“Now the formal process of selling those assets is actually starting and still it remains secret.”
Inside Croydon has repeatedly requested an interview with Hamida Ali since she became leader of the council. She has never replied.
So instead, here’s an audio recording of her being interviewed on BBC Radio London about the council’s financial collapse:
- You can support Inside Croydon’s news-breaking independent local journalism. Sign up today as a subscriber. Click here
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named the country’s rottenest borough in 2020 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine – the fourth successive year that Inside Croydon has been the source for such award-winning nominations
- Inside Croydon: 3million page views in 2020. Seen by 1.4million unique visitors