CROYDON IN CRISIS: Did the council leader lie to a parliamentary committee when she promised to release the investigation findings into the ‘appalling’ state of council flats in South Norwood ‘as soon as we have them’?
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
More than six weeks since Hamida Ali was approached by journalists from ITV News about the “worst flats in Britain”, and the Labour council’s leader is still refusing to meet with residents who have had to endure the “appalling” leaks, damp and mould in the South Norwood council blocks.
Ali has failed to accept repeated invitations for a face-to-face meeting from a group representing the residents.
Instead, in a move which has been described as “gas-lighting” by the council and an attempt to bully residents, many of them vulnerable, a council executive director has had letters hand-delivered to flats in the blocks on Regina Road, presenting them with what some see as little more than an ultimatum.
The letter, seen by Inside Croydon, was delivered on Thursday and is signed by Sarah Hayward, as “interim executive director, Place”.
Before she got her job in Croydon, Hayward had been a Labour politician, the leader of Camden Council, a position she resigned after she was forced to undertake anger management classes and was subject to an investigation by a Queen’s Counsel into serious allegations of bullying.
Hayward was out of work until her Blairite colleague, Tony Newman, Ali’s predecessor as council leader, offered her a job in Croydon for which she was completely under-qualified.
After a series of top-level departures from the council following its financial collapse last year, Hayward has been thrust into another role for which she is seemingly ill-qualified.
When Councillor Ali was cornered by ITV News in March, she promised to meet with residents immediately.
But Hayward’s letter – with the slogan: “Delivering for Croydon” – holds out no prospect of such a meeting.
Instead, despite knowing that the residents have already formed their own support group, she says, “The council is … keen to establish and support a residents’ group on the Regina Road estate to work in partnership with the council to improve your housing services, communications and community activities.”
As one community volunteer told Inside Croydon, “This is nothing less than gas-lighting of the residents by the council. The MP, Steve Reed, tried to do much the same, controlling sort of thing, where they set-up a group for the residents, and so by-pass the residents’ own group.
“How can residents seriously consider a ‘partnership’ with their landlords and local politicians who have let them down so very badly, for so long? The residents are angry, and these are the people they want to hold to account.”
The council has repeatedly refused to respond to the Regina Road Residents’ Support Group, or to even acknowledge its existence. “This is a concerted effort to divide and rule,” the community worker said.
Not all residents affected by the dreadful conditions in their council flats have even received the Hayward letter. Those who were subject to an emergency evacuation to alternative or temporary accommodation once the ITV news report caused a national scandal, such as Fransoy Hewitt, the young mum living in the dangerously wired flat featured in the television report, have not had the letter.
“This has not been done by accident,” said the volunteer.
At just two working days’ notice, Hayward is offering what she describes as a “private” online meeting with hand-picked residents in the three tower blocks.
Yet many of the Regina Road council tenants do not even have access to the internet. The damp conditions of their council homes regularly blows the electricity supply, and makes using electrical appliances a risk. Many tenants do not speak English as their first language – some who received Hayward’s letter had to have help to understand what it said.
Only a few can afford to own a laptop or means of joining an online meeting. And many of the older residents find a lot of technology difficult to operate.
“The tone of the whole letter has this passive-aggressive, controlling feel to it,” said one volunteer.
“It is an attempt to bully the tenants into submission, to do the council’s bidding. The residents I have spoken to are furious.”
Jane Nicholl, who has been working with the distressed residents of Regina Road for many months and who is standing as an independent candidate in Thursday’s South Norwood council by-election, said, “I met with the residents earlier today at the flats.
“To say they were raging about the letter would be an understatement.”
Members of the Regina Road Residents’ Support Group told Inside Croydon, “How dare they try to form a separate group. We are the residents, and we have formed our own group to represent us.”
Another said, “We don’t know what the agenda is, and they’ll just mute us if they don’t like what we’re saying. This has been arranged so that they have complete control.”
And a third said, “We did not ask for a Zoom meeting, we asked for Hamida Ali to come and speak with us. She’s found plenty of time to be out and about campaigning with her political friends these past few weeks ahead of the elections – but she won’t come anywhere near Regina Road to hear what we have to say.”
One young mother told Inside Croydon, “I feel hurt, really hurt that they ignore us in this way. But we are growing stronger together as a group and we will not back down. They cannot treat us like this.”
Ali’s failure to meet the residents is not her only broken promise she made about Regina Road. It seems that she misled an important committee of MPs over when she would release the urgent report into how so many council homes could fall into such terrible states of disrepair.
When Ali gave her car-crash interview on ITV, she promised that an independently chaired investigation would be carried out and report within two weeks. Ali also said that the report would be made publicly available immediately.
A month since the first draft of the report was handed to Croydon Council, its contents are still being kept a secret from Regina Road tenants and the public.
Two independent consultants, Paddy Mooney and Kieran Colgan from a consultancy called Ark, were commissioned by the council and have been paid at least £800 per day each.
The initial two-week gig was extended to a third week, so that they might also interview council housing department staff and the repairs contractors, Axis. Total cost of the report so far: at least £24,000.
But as well as making a promise for the report’s immediate release when interviewed on television, Ali also appeared before a Commons select committee where she repeated much the same pledge.
Senior council sources confirm that Ali prepared carefully for the two-hour grilling she was to receive from the parliamentary housing and local government committee, receiving advice and briefings from political colleagues and from the council’s most senior executives, such as interim CEO Katherine Kerswell. Kerswell also attended the parliamentary committee, but answered notably far fewer questions than the Labour councillor.
At the start of the committee hearing, to deal with matter of the “appalling” council flats in South Norwood, Ali read from a prepared statement: “We have appointed an external investigator, who will be reporting back to us in less than two weeks. We will share those findings as soon as we have them.”
As soon as we have them.
But the report has never been published, apparently because Kerswell has decided that their findings might be politically sensitive (no shit, Sherlock) and therefore cannot be shared until after the London elections because of purdah.
Which seems odd, since for Croydon, the political purdah period began on March 24 – the day before Councillor Ali read out her carefully prepared solemn apology and promise to parliament. Didn’t she, or whoever it was who drafted her little speech, realise that at the time?
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