CROYDON IN CRISIS: Having overseen the removal of almost all of Jo Negrini’s ‘executive leadership team’, it seems that the interim chief exec wants to move on to better things. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon Council is to begin the hunt for a new chief executive, with advertisements expected to appear in a fortnight’s time, according to sources at Fisher’s Folly.
Council insiders are interpreting this move as indicating that Katherine Kerswell has no desire to extend her stay in Croydon much beyond the first anniversary of her arrival as the borough’s £192,474 pa interim chief executive officer in September.
With the record £120million government bail-out secured for Croydon’s bankrupt council, there is now loadsamoney to pay for a permanent CEO, and to fund the fancy fees demanded by whatever firm of executive headhunters the authority’s execs decided to use.
As well as the financial rescue package, the other “achievement” of Kerswell’s time in Croydon may be seen as a thorough clear out of the pompously titled “executive leadership team”, which she inherited from her predecessor, Jo Negrini.
That came one step closer to being completed today with the resignation of Jacqueline Harris-Baker, the borough solicitor.
Harris-Baker had been on sick leave from since early February – coincidentally at the same time that Kerswell suspended four other of the council’s most senior employees after having received the Penn Report into possible wrong-doing at the council. Having commissioned the Penn Report, with the help of the Local Government Association, Kerswell has never allowed it to be published.
In early 2019, Negrini had promoted Harris-Baker to executive director of resources, a position for which she was notably under-qualified. Without any accountancy background, Harris-Baker could not serve as the borough’s Section 151 officer, a finance position required by law. Within two years of Harris-Baker being appointed to her new post, the authority was issuing the dread Section 114 notice, effectively admitting it was bankrupt.
Soon after Kerswell arrived, Harris-Baker was given what had all the appearance of a demotion, back to her former borough solicitor role. Her departure now sees her avoid any suspension and possibly any disciplinary action.
In recent weeks, the council has appointed interims as exec director of resources, borough solicitor and monitoring officer – all roles previously held by Ms H-B. When the council was asked, by Private Eye magazine, when Harris-Baker was expected to return to work, and in what capacity, answer came there none. This was clearly a sore point for the council.
Since Negrini quit last summer, having forced the borough’s political leaders to hand her a £440,000 golden handshake, there has been a bloody cull on the 7th floor of Fisher’s Folly, as one after another the execs on salaries of £150,000 per year or more, all Negrini’s appointees, have departed.
The first to go was Robert Henderson (exec director children, families and education). Guy van Dichele (health, well-being and adults), resigned before he was suspended, to take up a similar post at Southampton, where Henderson also now works.
Sean Murphy, the borough’s second-most senior lawyer, has resigned recently.
Lisa Taylor, the finance director who carried the can for the S114 ignominy, resigned in February after having been suspended. She now has a senior role working for Birmingham City Council.
Heather Cheesbrough, another key Negrini appointee, a controversial director of planning, has also resigned.
That leaves just Shifa Mustafa, who was exec director of “Place”, and Hazel Simmonds, who was in charge of “gateway, strategy and engagement”.
Little has been heard of either Mustafa or Simmonds since they were among the suspendees three months ago, although Mustafa’s role was recently filled by remarkably under-qualified Sarah Hayward as an interim. It is entirely possible that both may still be on the payroll, even if they are still on gardening leave.
Effectively, it appears that under Kerswell, Croydon’s cash-strapped council has been paying two exec director salaries in at least three roles for the last three months. Cushty!
And there’s another executive salary to be paid, now, too, with Elaine Jackson having been appointed by Kerswell as her assistant CEO shortly after her arrival.
Jackson’s salary was initially paid by the LGA, as a means of helping Croydon dig itself out of a hole. But that arrangement ended at the end of March. Jackson’s very generous salary now, in common with all the other execs, is now being paid for by the borough’s Council Tax-payers.
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