CROYDON IN CRISIS: Two key figures in the council’s financial collapse claim to be victims of an inaccurate report into their conduct. They might also escape facing any disciplinary action by quitting now.
By STEVEN DOWNES
Tony Newman, until last October the leader of the council, and one of his closest colleagues in the local Labour Party, Simon Hall, tonight both announced that they had resigned as councillors.
Hall quit his position as the council’s cabinet member for finance last October. A couple of days later, Newman stood down as leader, a position he had held since 2014.
A similar pattern emerged today.
At a little after 5.30 tonight, Newman ended a four-month Twitter silence when he posted a message, typically barely literate: “Today I stand down as a Cllr after 27yrs your support has been immense & it’s been an honour to serve Re Penn I have advice from leading counsel & there are many issues – draft report factually inaccurate & baseless allegations it is a witch hunt & a shambles.”
Last month, Newman and Hall were placed on “administrative suspension” by the Labour Party, pending an investigation, apparently as a result of their both being named in a report on “possible wrong-doing” written by Richard Penn, of the Local Government Association. Penn’s report, which is 140 pages long, was delivered to the council’s interim chief exec, Katherine Kerswell, nearly three months ago, but has not yet been released.
Hall had issued his own resignation tweet about half an hour before Newman.
In his statement, Hall claimed to have been made a scapegoat for the council having to declare itself effectively bankrupt, and added that “threat to family made situation untenable”.
Hall had been the Labour-controlled Town Hall cabinet member for finance from 2014 until October last year, when the council had overspent by £66million and was left waiting for more than £30million in loan repayments, interest and profits from the in-house house-builders, Brick by Brick. Both Newman and Hall had been conspicuous in their support for the failed housing developer.
Hall was first elected to the council for Fieldway ward, what is now New Addington North, in 2005.
Newman was leader of the Labour group on the council for 15 years. He had represented Woodside ward since 1994. His co-councillors in Woodside were his close friend, Paul Scott, who headed up the council’s planning policy, and Hamida Ali, who succeeded Newman as council leader.
The resignations come less than 48 hours after Hall and Newman both took part in Monday’s full council meeting, in which they both voted in favour of the council’s budget for 2021-2022.
On Twitter, Hall wrote, “Today I resign as New Addington Cllr after 16 yrs. It was an honour to serve always in good faith. On advice from leading counsel I view complaints against me from a flawed factually inaccurate draft report as baseless. But scapegoating & threat to family made situation untenable.”
Hall also posted a longer, more detailed statement, in which he said, “It is with real sadness that I am announcing that I am standing down from the Council with immediate effect, a year earlier than I had planned…
“I have, at all times, done my absolute best for New Addington and Croydon in the most challenging circumstances and put my heart and soul into working for the benefit of Croydon, acting at all times in good faith…
“A draft report that had not been fact-checked and was in any case deeply flawed has been used as the basis of complaints to the council’s ethics committee and the Labour Party, The legal advice I have received regarding the flawed draft report is damning about its content.
“There has been a baseless attempt to scapegoat me…
“The toll of the recent concerted attempt to scapegoat me has been considerable, for me personally and my family. All of this has made the situation untenable. This is why I am resigning as a councillor with immediate effect.”
On Monday, Kerswell mentioned that another investigation into Croydon’s affairs, the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, had been completed and that its report was being “fact-checked”. The use of such similar phrasing might suggest that Kerswell and the council leadership may have already received legal complaints on behalf of Newman and Hall over the Penn Report.
Hall’s statement also made mention of the government-commissioned rapid review of the council’s affairs, and how it had spoken of collective, rather than individual failures.
Hall may have overlooked these couple of paragraphs from Chris Wood’s rapid review report: “It is clear that in recent history Croydon Council has failed to manage its finances adequately in many… areas. It is a council that is said to be unfamiliar with taking and implementing difficult financial decisions and as a consequence it has engendered a culture of poor budget management and poor financial control.
“There seems to be a unanimity of view that these failings are attributable to the poor leadership and poor management of the council over a number of years. It is said that the strong leader and cabinet model allowed the former leader to create an inner circle of a small number of cabinet members who have been very controlling in their management of the council and its finances.
“There was a clear desire to pursue an ambitious growth agenda for Croydon and when elements of this growth could not be realised, rather than increased caution, it seems there was a continued desire to accentuate the positive.
“We heard many accounts of officers being asked to re-word cabinet reports to present the most favourable picture. It is evident that the tone of many financial reports to cabinet do not accurately reflect the seriousness of the council’s financial position.”
It seems likely that by resigning as councillors, Newman and Hall might escape any disciplinary action that may have been brought by Croydon Council.
The Labour group at the Town Hall is now reduced to just 39 councillors, to the opposition Tories’ 29. With ward by-elections in usually Labour strongholds Woodside and New Addington possible on May 6 – the London elections day – they might yet demonstrate how much political damage Newman and Hall have done to Labour in Croydon, compared to the financial damage suffered by the council when they were in charge.
Read more: Council Tax-payers pay for politicians’ game of cat-and-mouse
Read more: Croydon In Crisis: Council handed biggest bail-out ever
Read more: 28% – Newman leaves his Council Tax legacy to Croydon
Read more: ‘Not good enough’ chair of scrutiny could yet stay in post
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