Leader says she has no idea who approved BxB loans

Thursday’s cabinet meeting provided more questions than answers over unlawful subsidies to BxB. Tory councillor Robert Ward (bottom right) put the question to Hamida Ali (centre, bottom row), twice. He never got an answer

CROYDON IN CRISIS: The £224m in loans and unpaid interest owed to the council by Brick by Brick may have broken EU and British state aid and competition laws. But after nearly six months in her job, Hamida Ali claims she has no idea who authorised the payments.
By WALTER CRONXITE, political editor

Despite being a trusted member of Tony Newman’s cabinet for nearly five years, Hamida Ali, the new leader of Croydon Council, claims she has no idea who authorised making massive loans to the failed house-builder, Brick by Brick.

“If anyone wanted an example of the ‘corporate blindness’ the council was accused of having by its auditors, then this was it,” a Katharine Street source said after seeing Ali’s non-answer answer at Thursday’s cabinet meeting.

“The leader of the council can’t seriously expect people to believe she doesn’t know. Because if that is true, then she’s not fit to be in that position.”

Ali took over from Newman as council leader last October, voted in to that position by her fellow Labour councillors (who included Newman and members of his must-criticised “inner circle”) barely a day before the council was rocked by the bombshell of the Report In The Public Interest from auditors Grant Thornton, who highlighted the many failings of the council under Newman.

Brick by Brick proved good at producing child-like scribbled drawings, but much less-good at building homes or producing profits

Close to the top of that list of blunders was the hundreds of millions of pounds lent to Brick by Brick by the council, without ever receiving a single penny back in loan repayments, interest or profits.

Yet despite being in charge of the council for almost six months, and Croydon’s financial collapse being at the forefront of Town Hall business since last May, Ali told the cabinet meeting that she was “not involved in those discussions” around Brick by Brick.

Management consultants PwC have found that the council is owed £224million by Brick by Brick in loans and unpaid interest repayments.

It was the “risk” that £36million-worth of loan and interest repayments from Brick by Brick would not materialise that was given as a primary reason when the council issued a Section114 notice in November, admitting it could not balance its budget for this year and was effectively broke.

Both auditors Grant Thornton and now the council scrutiny committee have raised the possibility that the amount of loans provided to Brick by Brick may have been unlawful, breaking EU rules over state aid, and what is now in British competition laws. They also increased the risk to the council significantly.

Hamida Ali with her political boss, Tony Newman: is she too closely aligned with his failed regime?

As explained in the Report In The Public Interest, “The original business case [for Brick by Brick] approved by cabinet in March 2015 included the recommendation that the key legal and structural components of the company will not be more than 50 per cent financed by the Council.

“By the 2017-2018 business plan, the funding mechanism was 75 per cent borrowing and 25 per cent equity.”

But as Tory councillor Robert Ward made the point in his question to Ali at Thursday’s cabinet, “The 25 per cent equity, 75 per cent loan was in every piece of documentation agreed by the council.

“Yet it was always ignored.

“On every occasion it was 100 per cent loan funded. Who took the decision and under what authority?” Ward asked Ali.

Ali didn’t want to answer. She gave a hospital pass to Chris Buss, the external consultant who has been working with PwC to try to unravel the Brick by Brick mess.

Buss wasn’t going to answer the question, either. “The mission I had was to resolve the issues going forward, not to undertake a post mortem,” said Buss, who has a well-practised method of deflecting awkward questions.

“I was not asked to look into it and I have not looked at it.”

Ward thanked Buss for his non-answer answer. “I was really asking the leader,” said Ward, the deputy chair of the scrutiny committee. “She was a member of the cabinet. Surely the leader must have known something about it and done something about it?”

With Newman and his former cabinet member for finance having been suspended by the Labour Party in the past week, Ward made the point of his question quite clear for Ali: “I suspect those responsible are on her backbenches.”

Hamida Ali was first elected to the council in 2014, as a councillor in Woodside ward alongside Newman, who fast-tracked her into his cabinet. Ali, it seemed, was destined for greatness – or at least what passes for greatness on Croydon Council, as she was groomed by her Blairite boss as a possible future Labour MP.

Anyone who witnessed her hapless, blundering performance on Thursday will wonder whether Ali even has much of a future as a Croydon councillor.

Her face belied her anger that Ward was pressing for any answer. She did her best to avoid giving one.

Stonewall: unwilling to answer questions about Brick by Brick’s funding, a concerned-looking Ali (bottom right) tried to get Chris Buss (bottom left) to cover for her

“I am not able to give you an answer to that question,” Ali told Ward.

“I was not involved in those discussions.  I am conscious it was a recommendation in the Report  In The Public Interest and I think given where we are now and what we know now, I think the 100 per cent debt model is much preferable given all of our concerns… errr… about… ummm… how the investment of… ummm… errr… the public’s investment…”.

Ali trailed off, and sought to hide from any supplementaries by calling a question from another Conservative councillor.

Tony McArdle, the chair of the improvement board appointed by the government to oversee Croydon’s “recovery”, and who Ali had welcomed to the meeting earlier as an observer, won’t have been impressed.

Certainly, Croydon Tories’ deputy leader Jason Cummings was not satisfied with the non-answer provided by the council leader.

“It is disappointing but not surprising that Councillor Ali continues to protect her colleagues who caused Croydon’s financial crisis,” said Cummings, clearly exasperated by Ali’s obfuscation.

“Labours failure to adhere to even their own policies can not be excused and Councillor Ali needs to keep her promises to openness and transparency.”

  • In case you had not heard it before, and wanted to get a first-hand feel for Hamida Ali’s performance in answering questions, this is a recording of her appearance on BBC Radio London’s Vanessa Feltz show from last November

Read more: Council starts the biggest fire-sale ever seen in south London
Read more: Leader apologises for six years of misrule
Read more: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Brick by Brick, Croydon Council, Hamida Ali, Report in the Public Interest, Robert Ward, Section 114 notice, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Leader says she has no idea who approved BxB loans

  1. CentralCroydon says:

    It is patently obvious that Ali is way out of her depth as Leader (and even councillor). Her incompetence is astounding. No wonder the council finances have turned into such a shit show. I wouldn’t be surprised if she is wishing that she hadn’t stood as a councillor or as Leader. The sooner the whole labour leadership is swept away, the sooner some sensible decisions may be made. Roll on the mayoral referendum and the 2022 council elections.

  2. moyagordon says:

    For the council leader to claim she doesn’t know who authorised such massive loans is shocking. If she is responsible for getting the council out of the current mess how can she hold people responsible for their failures and how could she prevent the same mistakes being made again if she doesn’t understand how they happened in the first place. What a crazy situation.

  3. As Sebastian Tillinger, I and many others have said this Council will have below zero credibility until all vestiges of the useless, inefficient, unintelligent, overambitious,credulous, bullying regime associated with Newman are removed. Hamida Ali’s disingenuous disavowal of any knowledge of the monstrous loans to BXB is yet another example of how the rotten legacy of the last regime still persists. We need new Councillors, a total Tabula Rasa, a clean sheet, a new clean beginning or we’ll soon be careening down the path of Einsteinian lunacy, repeating the same mistakes time and time again, each time hoping that what didn’t work last time will work this time.

  4. Geoff James says:

    Two points
    1) Any Council finance team will be required to have and retain authorization before they make any council payments. So the Croydon finance team will have records of why they made each payment to BxB and under what authority they made each payment. So it is likely that Ms Ali has not bothered to ask the finance team for those authorization records. That then suggests either
    (i) the finance team made unauthorized payments and the Finance staffers should be investigated in case a crime has been committed; or
    (ii) they are properly authorized payments, but Ms Ali does not like where the paper trail leads. Now it is standard for all large capital payments at Councils to be authorized at cabinet level and minutes recorded. Therefore as a minimum “ALL” the cabinet (including Ms Ali) are briefed, and part the authorization – recorded in the minutes.
    2) Given the above, one is likely to conclude that Ms Ali, as a member of the former cabinet is either fully complicit or fully incompetent.

  5. Kevin Croucher says:

    I watched some of the webcast of that meeting last week and actually felt quite sorry for her. She appeared to be wishing that she was somewhere else for most of the meeting and must be wondering why on earth she let her Woodside ward colleagues talk her into standing as leader. I’m sure they had their reasons.

  6. miapawz says:

    Surely the leader of the council must be able to show us the financial trails. This is large scale payments of public money…. Ms Ali is either hiding something, poorly briefed, or incompetent? I feel uncomfortable with all options.

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