CROYDON IN CRISIS: Minutes from another council’s meeting shows that Guy Van Dichele was offered a job in Southampton eight days before he was ‘suspended’ from his post as executive director ‘health, well-being and adults’. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Documents obtained by Inside Croydon show that Guy Van Dichele, Croydon’s executive director “health, well-being and adults”, whose resignation from the council was only announced on Thursday, had in fact been approved to be appointed to a senior role at Southampton City Council 18 days earlier.
It suggests that Van Dichele already had the option to change jobs long before Katherine Kerswell, Croydon’s interim chief executive, suspended him and three other execs from their duties.
The discrepancy between Van Dichele’s appointment in Southampton and the announcement by Kerswell this week of his resignation has raised some questions among senior Labour councillors about how the disciplinary process is being conducted.
Van Dichele’s resignation, together with that of Lisa Taylor, the council’s finance director, was announced to shocked council staff on Thursday afternoon. No further details, such as Van Dichele moving to another local authority, were provided.
When asked about the departures at a council cabinet meeting that evening, Hamida Ali, the council leader, shrugged off the matter, saying it was “business as usual”.
This despite Ali presiding over the majority of the council’s executive leadership team being on gardening leave while on full pay, and two key figures quitting their jobs in the middle of a pandemic lockdown and the budget-setting process for 2021-2022.
Van Dichele had worked at the council since December 2016 and held various positions in the challenging social care sector, rising to his ultimate job which in the past year had carried much of the responsibility for the borough’s response to covid-19.
Unlike some of his colleagues, Van Dichele was regarded by Katharine Street sources as a competent manager. Despite the high-powered nature of his job and the significant responsibilities for health and social care that he carried, Van Dichele was unusual among many of his senior colleagues working at Croydon under former CEO Jo Negrini in maintaining a low profile.
According to figures from the council (correct to 2019), Van Dichele was the highest paid member of council staff apart from the CEO, on £215,444 per annum.
He was among the four execs to be suspended from duty a fortnight ago, pending a disciplinary process. The suspensions were announced soon after Kerswell received the Penn Report into “possible wrong-doing” at the council in the couple of years that led to the authority going bust.
But the agenda and minutes of a meeting which happened 90 miles away, in the offices of Southampton City Council at the start of the month, put a wholly different interpretation on the sequence of events.
They also raise questions about the timing of some of the staff management developments at Fisher’s Folly.
The agenda from Southampton’s “chief officer appointment panel” that met on February 1 gives very little away. The sole substantive item on that agenda was “Appointment of Interim Executive Director Wellbeing Adults and Health (DASS)” – but this was listed as a “Part B” agenda item, to be discussed in secret, with the press and public excluded. Van Dichele was not named in that agenda document.
The agenda had been published 10 days earlier, on January 22, which suggests that anyone who might have applied for such a senior role will have done so well before Christmas 2020.
As with Van Dichele’s role in Croydon, the Southampton position includes duties as DASS – the director of adult social services – a legally required, statutory position under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970.
It is probably not just coincidence that Rob Henderson, the director of education and children services in Croydon until last September and a colleague of Van Dichele, had also left Fisher’s Folly for a job in Southampton.
This week, the minutes of that February 1 meeting have been published, where it shows that the committee of Southampton councillors accepted a recommendation of their council’s human resources director to appoint Van Dichele.
It is, of course, possible that Van Dichele decided against accepting the Southampton job, although given the events in Croydon, this would seem unlikely. Needing to give three months’ notice on his position in Croydon, it seems more probable that his resignation letter will have been on Kerswell’s desk by the morning of Tuesday, February 2.
What followed therefore raises more questions than answers.
On Monday, February 8, at the latest “emergency” meeting of Croydon Council, a report was presented at very short notice presenting a series of measures recommending changes to the borough’s appointments committee and disciplinary processes for senior officials. The measures were swiftly passed, with little questioning or debate.
On Tuesday, February 9, sources reported strange goings-on inside the council, as five of its most senior employees – Van Dichele and Taylor, plus Hazel Simmonds and Shifa Mustafa, while borough solicitor, Jacqueline Harris-Baker was off sick – were unavailable. Callers to the council were told that the five execs were “not contactable”.
Inside Croydon discovered that Van Dichele and three colleagues had been suspended by Kerswell (Harris-Baker’s status remains uncertain), while council sources warned that, “Not all of the five exec directors are implicated by the Penn Report.”
It was not until more than a week later, on Thursday, February 18, Kerswell made her announcement to staff about the resignations of Van Dichele and Taylor.
Even some of the most senior council figures admit that they were not aware of Van Dichele being appointed to a job in Southampton until “more recently”.
And a Katharine Street source said, “Katherine Kerswell needs to offer some explanation, to staff, councillors and the public. When was she aware of Van Dichele’s resignation? Why did she not announce his departure until after the executives were suspended?
“While Kerswell keeps the Penn Report unpublished, these questions will continue to be raised.”
Neither Van Dichele, Kerswell or Croydon Council had not responded to Inside Croydon’s request for comment by the time of publication.
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