CROYDON IN CRISIS: A meeting last night showed that no one had bothered removing former leader Tony Newman from an important committee, while councillors lacked the power to sack the chief executive or other senior officials. WALTER CRONXITE reports
That loud banging noise coming from the Town Hall just before 7pm on Monday, which was heard from Crystal Palace to Coulsdon? It was the sound of a stable door being slammed shut, months after Phar Lap had galloped off into the sunset with £440,000 safely secured in her saddle bags…
The council’s latest “emergency” Zoom meeting last night came complete with its own Handford Parish Council moment when Mayor Maddie Henson felt the need to reproach the phantom raspberry blower of Old Purley Town, saying, “Unpleasant noises are not acceptable.” Clearly, someone had a view of Sean Fitzsimon’s performance as chair of the scrutiny committee which they felt needed to be expressed.
Which they duly did. Although how anyone can ever prove who voted for what, when 60-odd people all shout “Yea” or “Nay” simultaneously at their lap-tops is anyone’s guess. This, remember, is the year 2021. And this is how council meetings are run in Croydon.
Perhaps fortunately, as far as the Mayor was concerned, nobody chose to “spoil their ballot” with a full-blooded fart noise. Mayor Henson seemed certain enough that all Labour’s councillors had toed the party line. That, though, may have been wishful thinking on her, and the Labour chief whip’s, behalf.
Whatever the true voting figures last night, Croydon’s residents will now go to the polls (or, if they are covid-shrewd, use their postal ballots) twice this year: on May 6, for the London Assembly and Mayor elections; and then again on October 7, for a borough-wide referendum on whether a directly-elected mayor is any better than the current “strong leader” method of running the council. And all at an additional cost of £650,000 for the cash-strapped council. You know it makes sense…
The opposition Conservatives appeared to be having a touch of buyers’ remorse. Having voted in favour of having a meeting at which the directly-elected mayor referendum would be agreed, last night Croydon Tories voted against having the referendum.
In the absence of their leader, Jason Perry, indisposed having contracted coronavirus, it was left to his deputy, Jason Cummings, to provide another Handford Parish Council moment when he raised a point of order to try to explain the apparent conflicts in the Tory position: a week earlier, they had voted with Labour in favour of having a meeting. They most certainly had not voted for a referendum in October. Thanks for clearing that up, Jase…
At least Cummings and the Tories were thus able to demonstrate that Croydon’s Labour group does not have a monopoly on ineptitude. By going for an October referendum, Labour – who had opposed a directly-elected mayor – have now probably ensured that the campaign for an elected mayor campaign will win the referendum, as their supporters are more likely to be motivated to turn out for a positive vote than others, who probably couldn’t give a toss either way.
But the move comes at a cost, and for the Labour administration which bankrupted the borough, incurring a bill of £650,000, when they might have reduced their costs by running the referendum alongside the London elections in May, is hardly a move designed to win back the confidence of the public.
While the referendum date was supposed to be the main part of the meeting, it seems that an “emergency motion” (yes, another Croydon Council “emergency”) might have more far-reaching impact.
The emergency motion was shared with the majority of the borough’s councillors less than an hour before the emergency meeting was due to start.
At first glance, the recommendations in the accompanying report (which you can read in pdf by clicking here) appear entirely arcane. Stuff about an appointments committee and HR… “Suspend paragraph 2.4 of Part 4F of the Constitution in order to appoint a new Chair of the Appointments Committee… Agree to amend Part 3 of the Constitution (Responsibility for Functions) and Part 4J (Staff Employment Procedure Rules).”
What possibly could be the urgency?
It turns out that, until last night, Tony Newman was still the chair of the appointments committee.
Newman was forced to resign, in some disgrace, as leader of the council in October. So, for the past five months any hiring and firing of senior council executives might have been vetted by the same person who promoted Jo Negrini to become CEO and helped to bankrupt the borough.
While it might be expected that the leader of the council would have a say on the appointments committee, the appointment of chair is made annually and specifies the appointee by name, not by position held. It had not occurred to anyone at the council, since last October, that it might not be a good idea allowing Newman to exercise his fatally flawed judgement on the borough any longer (and yes, he does still get to vote, have an influence on Labour group policy, and draw councillor allowances).
Of course, there have been pressing matters at hand since last October, but it is surely a sign of the competence, or lack of it, among some in the council’s legal department that nothing had been done about this any sooner.
Other constitutional changes were recommended and approved last night, because it turns out that the legal eagles who advise the council had created house rules which made it impossible to suspend the council’s “statutory officers”. These include the chief executive, as well as the monitoring officer and chief finance officer.
So, it seems entirely possible that had the borough’s elected representatives ever wanted to suspend Jo “Negreedy” Negrini from her post as chief executive, they might not have been able to do so.
Now, following last night’s spring clean of the constitution, they could.
And while it is a bit late to try to exercise any employment disciplinary on Negrini, it seems that her replacement, Katherine Kerswell, is making sure that she has all her ducks in a row in case she needs to take action with her colleagues, those six-figure-salaried Negrini appointees who have so ill-served the council.
The “Penn Report”, the investigation into whether there has been any “wrong-doing” at the council over the last four or five years, has been delayed – the investigator, Richard Penn, was “indisposed” over Christmas and unable to complete his draft. Town Hall sceptics suspect that Penn will, in any case, deliver a whitewash and claim to have found no evidence of wrong-doing.
Kerswell, it seems, wants to be prepared. “…This independent investigation would include an assessment of what, if any, formal action was required to be taken under any relevant processes,” the report to last night’s meeting said.
“While the report of that independent initial investigation is yet to be finalised, a prudent approach has been taken to review the preparedness of the governance arrangements for the appointments committee should the report make any recommendations that formal action may be required to be taken.”
Some Town Hall sources are expecting there to be a clear-out among the occupants of the executive floor at Fisher’s Folly. Last week Chris Wood, the inspector sent in by government minister Robert Jenrick to carry out a “rapid review” of Croydon, was explicit in his view of the poor calibre of the council’s executive leadership, which he recommended should be “strengthened and has sufficient capability, capacity and experience to lead the recovery”.
Kerswell has already made a couple of subtle, but significant, changes to the old guard. Jacqueline Harris-Baker, who was over-promoted to deputy chief executive and monitoring officer by Negrini, has lately been referred to by her previous job title, borough solicitor. Elaine Jackson, recruited by Kerswell as her deputy, now holds the important responsibility of monitoring officer.
While one or two of Negrini’s less accomplished, overpaid appointees have already made their way towards the exit at Fisher’s Folly – notably planning chief Heather Cheesbrough and arts supremo Paula Murray – Kerswell may be looking for further departures, and to make some appointments of her own.
As last night’s report states, “Members will also be aware that, as part of Croydon’s renewal plans, the council is currently undertaking a management restructure. The review of the governance arrangements for the appointments committee has also been undertaken in that context, to ensure that any meetings of that Committee, if required, can be properly constituted.”
So now, if Kerswell wants to make an appointment, at least she won’t have to have Tony Newman chairing the meeting.
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments – how the Fairfield Halls refurbishment cost Croydon £50m-plus
Read more: Council forced to declare itself bankrupt
Read more: Officials to investigate possible wrong-doing at council
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