CROYDON IN CRISIS: The Town Hall’s theatre of the absurd continues tonight with a meeting chaired by a councillor criticised by auditors and government inspectors for failing to raise the alarm over finances and poor governance. STEVEN DOWNES reports
Sean Fitzsimons, the chair of the council’s scrutiny committee who has been widely criticised for being ineffectual in the borough’s financial collapse, tonight chairs a scrutiny committee which will look at the performance of… the scrutiny committee.
The lack of any kind of critical self-awareness around the Labour-run council is widely seen as one of the causes of the runaway budgets and failures over Brick by Brick, Westfield and the Fairfield Halls.
Persisting with Fitzsimons heading a committee which failed to sound loud alarm bells over repeat and profligate failures will be seen by many residents, angry after receiving their Council Tax bills this week, as the latest example of arrogance and unaccountability. Allowing Fitzsimons to preside over a report that examined the workings of his failed committee will be seen by many others as simply absurd.
Despite criticisms from external auditors and government inspectors of his performance in failing to hold to account the council’s executive – including the discredited Tony Newman and Simon Hall – Fitzsimons chose not to stand down from the position as chair of scrutiny, and the council allowances that go with it (albeit reduced for 2020-2021 from the previously very generous £42,633.96).
Last month, the rapid review of Croydon Council ordered by government minister Robert Jenrick added its own criticisms of Fitzsimons’ committee to the serious reservations previously raised in the Report In The Public Interest from auditors Grant Thornton.
In his report to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Chris Wood wrote, “There are a number of checks and balances in the management of councils to guard against serious breaches in governance and/or good financial management… the council has a scrutiny function as part of its governance.
“These checks and balances appear not to have worked.”
And Wood said of Fitzsimons’ work, “The scrutiny committee, whilst calling decisions in, were not forceful in their challenge and did not refer key decisions back for the consideration of full council.”
For all Hamida Ali’s public posturing about how the council administration has changed under her leadership, she and Fitzsimons, who both prospered under the previous regime of Newman, remain as constant reminders of the bad old days, and ways.
Fitzsimons had his chance to stand down over the past fortnight, when the Town Hall Labour group had its annual meeting.
There was a modest cabinet reshuffle, with a couple of noteworthy casualties falling off the gravy train, but the changes were mostly as a result of the attempt by Ali to be seen to be cutting back on councillor expenditure.
Fitzsimons stubbornly opted not to withdraw as scrutiny chair. Nor did anyone give him a quiet tap on the shoulder and suggest that maybe, after all that has happened and been said, now was the time for him to spend some time paying close attention to his ward residents. So one important aspect which allowed the council to crash and burn remains safely in place.
The cabinet appointments process was changed this year, in a move away from the blatant abuse of public money through patronage by which Newman and his cabal exercised an iron grip over the Labour group for more than a decade.
Instead, the nine cabinet positions available were to be voted on by the 38 remaining Labour councillors.
Two positions, leader Ali and her deputy, Stuart King, were uncontested.
Of the seven remaining cabinet posts, in order to satisfy Labour’s gender equity rules, the first four had to be filled by women.
It was this move two weeks ago that saw Jane Avis squeezed out of the cabinet, prompting her immediate resignation as a councillor. Avis’s former job, as cabinet member for housing, was passed to newly-promoted Patricia Hay-Justice, just in time for her to sit down and watch the ITV News At Ten reports from Regina Road…
Also elected unopposed to cabinet posts (with their jobs to be allocated by Ali) were Janet Campbell, Manju Shahul-Hameed and Alisa Flemming – all of whom had served in the cabinet under Newman.
Another casualty of this game of Town Hall musical chairs was Selhurst councillor David Wood. Barely six months after taking over Ali’s old cabinet portfolio of communities, safety and resilience, Wood makes a swift return to the backbenchers.
Chris Clark, the chair of the planning committee, put himself up for a cabinet position, but did not have the support of his colleagues.
Callton Young continues as the cabinet member for finance, a position he has held since October, with Ollie Lewis and Muhammad Ali as the final cabinet members.
One significant shift from the Newman era was Clive Fraser, the old regime’s ever-loyal “enforcer” as group chief whip, has stood down, to be replaced by Jerry Fitzpatrick.
Former Lambeth Council employee Fraser’s attempt to continue topping up his pension pot with allowances from Croydon by getting elected as one of just four remaining deputy cabinet members also fizzled out.
Those roles went to Patsy Cummings (who now doubles up on “unsustainable Croydon” and “culture and regeneration”), and with promotions from the backbenches for Nina Degrads (for “homes and communities” and “safety and business recovery”), Stephen Mann (“families, health and social care”), and Maddie Henson (“children, young people and learning”).
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