More worries over Kerswell’s suitability for council top job

CROYDON IN CRISIS: Our council reporter, SANDRA STEAD, on the latest twist in the search for new leadership at Fisher’s Folly

Katherine Kerswell: expected to apply for permanent CEO job

Katherine Kerswell, the interim chief executive at Croydon’s bankrupt council, is expected to apply for and to be offered the £192,474 per year job on a permanent basis, according to multiple sources at Fisher’s Folly.

If confirmed, the move will mark a notable change in Kerswell’s career path, which in recent years has seen her take on a local government “gun for hire” role, hopping from senior job to senior job at distressed and struggling councils.

At least until late 2019, Kerswell lived with her partner, Barry Quirk, in a £1.2million-valued listed house in Lewisham. There, their next-door neighbours were the family of Professor Julius Weinberg, the chairman of Ofsted.

Kerswell and Quirk together represent the London local government “power couple”: Quirk, after 24 years as chief executive at Lewisham, moved to a similar role at Kensington and Chelsea in July 2017 – barely a month after the Grenfell Tower fire in that borough.

Barry Quirk: half of London local government’s ‘power couple’

And it could just be that the cross-south London commute to Croydon in post-covid traffic holds some appeal now for Kerswell after years of short-term appointments.

Interviews for Croydon Council’s top job are expected to take place on May 25.

But what could appear to be the almost automatic default appointment of Kerswell is regarded by some – including senior officials and elected councillors who have raised their concerns with Inside Croydon – as a potential disaster as the council looks to move on from years of blunder and mismanagement.

“It’s the same as ever at Croydon Council,” one Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon, “sleep-walking through seriously important decisions, with under-qualified people making the calls.

“The people who appointed the dodgy Nathan Elvery and promoted Jo Negreedy could be about to lock into post a government-approved appointee who has already shown herself to be more interested in protecting her own position and those of a handful of senior execs, while hundreds of low-paid council staff pay the price of their management’s serial incompetence.”

Kerswell was initially appointed for 12 months, following the abrupt departure as Croydon CEO of Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, who scarpered through the exit of Fisher’s Folly at the end of last August weighed down with a £440,000 pay-off in the pockets her designer trouser suit.

How Private Eye reported Negrini’s £440,000 pay-off

Prior to being parachuted in to Croydon with the backing of Whitehall and the Local Government Association, Kerswell had spent five months as the interim CEO at Nottingham City Council (another authority struggling on the brink of Section 114 status). Before that she had been interim CEO at Newham from August 2018 to April 2019.

But perhaps the most significant job Kerswell has held was the near two years she spent as managing director at Kent County Council, which came to an end in December 2011 when she left with her own controversial pay-off of £420,000 – almost a “full Negrini”, even before the term was invented.

The Kent Messenger has reported that the County Council “has never fully explained the full background to Ms Kerswell’s departure or accounted for why she was given a £420,000 payout…

“There were rumours that she had fallen out with the Conservative administration but the council said doing away with the managing director was a way of saving money.”

The golden handshake came back to bite Kerswell while she was working as “director general efficiency and reform”, during a two-year spell at the Cabinet Office when David Cameron was Prime Minister.

Writing in The Guardian in 2013, Kerswell said, “The drive to reduce costs, improve productivity and heighten overall efficiency is the key to public management for the foreseeable future, and it cannot be avoided.

Hamida Ali: the right person to decide on Kerswell’s suitability for the CEO job?

“Cost-effectiveness is the hallmark concept for public leaders in these austere times,” she wrote.

The remarks caused the gammons at the Tax-Payers’ Alliance to almost burst a blood vessel: “The irony of Katherine Kerswell lecturing us on efficiency and good use of taxpayers’ money is breath-taking,” they said, seething over the massive pay-out after a relatively short period at Kent.

The recruitment process in Croydon will be managed by staff in the council’s human resources department, with the final appointment being rubber-stamped by a committee of five elected councillors – three Labour and two Tory,  expected to include council leader Hamida Ali and opposition leader Jason Perry.

This raises immediate concerns: Councillor Ali was elected as leader of the council Labour group in a bit of a rush last October, and has since appeared to be dominated and in the thrall of senior council staff, most especially Kerswell.

“Hamida doesn’t seem to take a breath without getting the permission of the chief executive first,” a Town Hall insider said. “How will she manage to interview her in any objective manner?”

The other obvious and immediate problem confronting the council recruiters is what candidate of any decent calibre might want to apply for a job in charge of a basket-case council, with debts of £1.5billion, a housing company it is trying to flog off, and the ticking time-bomb of a £120million bail-out loan from government, with Ministry of Housing, Communitiees and Local Government breathing down your neck forthe foreseeable future?

From that perspective, Kerswell, after nine months in the hot seat, might appear to represent a convenient solution. Just possibly not the right one…

In the midst of the latest coronavirus lockdown, Kerswell, using significant sums of public money, has managed to maintain, even increase, the number of six-figure salary staff at the council, while also commissioning outside consultants for a range of tasks, including drafting three significant reports which she has, so far, kept under strict lock and key.

Tony Newman: the Penn Report’s findings on the ex-leader’s conduct remain a secret

The Penn Report, produced in association with her mates at the Local Government Association, was supposed to have looked into “possible wrong-doing” at the council under Negrini and the discredited former council leader, Tony Newman.

Newman and his cabinet member in charge of finance, Simon Hall, were both suspended by the Labour Party, it is understood as a consequence of findings in the Penn Report. Five council members of staff at exec director level have been suspended or quit. But still Kerswell is keeping the Penn Report to herself.

Likewise, an investigation by auditors Grant Thornton into possible illegal payments made during the botched and incomplete refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls appears to have vanished from public view.

The latest report to be kept back is an investigation into the “appalling” state of council flats in South Norwood, which caused a national scandal when shown on ITV News. Two independent consultants from a firm called Ark were commissioned by Kerswell, who agreed to pay them at least £800 per day each, and they were due to report back in just two weeks.

The LGA have been keen supporters of Kerswell

Six weeks on from Hamida Ali being briefed – probably by Kerswell – to tell TV reporters and a committee of MPs that “we will share those findings as soon as we have them”, and that report has still to see the light of day.

The council’s senior management now has just a few weeks to prepare for what’s left of their staff to return to their offices after lockdown, though little progress appears yet to have been made.

And at a remote meeting last week, members of the government-appointed “improvement and assurance panel” told council staff that they would play no part in the recruitment of Croydon’s new chief executive.

Kerswell’s publicly available CV, in which she writes about herself in the third-person, is full of self-recommendation… “She has just completed a successful five months”, “respond[ed] to covid-19 and deal[t] with a nationally significant Report in the Public Interest”, “successfully leading a large London borough”, “an impressive three years”. And so on.

Though, oddly, Kent doesn’t get an explicit mention.

Perhaps those Croydon officials conducting the interviews later this month might be better briefed about Kerswell if they ask her to respond to an earlier piece of writing, from that Guardian article in 2013.

Because then Kerswell, of the three secret reports and the frequent use of “Part B” council meetings to keep important matters from the public, wrote that “decision-making that is obscure, unseen or hidden fails the test of a modern democracy”.

Read more: Croydon shamed over ‘dangerous squalor’ in council flats
Read more: Newman and Hall resign as councillors claiming a ‘witchhunt’
Read more: Council Tax-payers pay for politicians’ game of cat-and-mouse
Read more: Croydon In Crisis: Council handed biggest bail-out ever

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15 Responses to More worries over Kerswell’s suitability for council top job

  1. Jim Bush says:

    Another reason why La Kerswell is unsuitable to be Croydon Council’s CEO……she spells her name wrongly, and would probably try to change Croydon’s Katharine Street to Katherine Street, so she could claim it is named after her ?!

  2. Maverick says:

    Croydon Council is starting to look more like the film Groundhog Day. You could not see this coming… or could you?

    There is nothing like giving those around you a nice pay rise, maybe they could be her future firewall, sound familiar? Didn’t Jo “Negreedy” Negrini do the same thing by appointing incompetent senior management around her, with one who is still in post, although with no professional qualifications for their position.

    I feel for the true workforce at the council with Kerswell in the wheelhouse, who to the best of my knowledge has achieved nothing but feather her own nest.

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    Having had to navigate the various departments at Croydon Council for the last year – if anything they have got worse since October.

    The latest saga just beggar’s belief. For the last three weeks not one person from Ms Kerswell downwards has been able to answer a simple question.

    A landlord has requested works to be done as part of his development. The utility companies apply for the permit which is granted to dig up pavements. The Council suspend the bays to enable this to happen by placing signs on the posts of the bays it relates to as notice to the public. Right no issue.

    Except on two separate weeks 13 – 20 April and 05 – 12 May no signs were put up beforehand.

    In fact SGN were asked on the 10th (Saturday) what they were doing putting out bollards and sectioning of the road and pavement without notice or communication to anyone. This was also flagged to the Council (multiple departments and the executive along with Councillors for that ward).

    Today for some reason it was felt appropriate to put up a notice in the morning of the 5th for the 5th whilst the bays were occupied. Three residents received PCN notices.

    More to the point the person who actually puts up these bay suspension signs had not placed those two up and took one down as it was clearly wrong anyway as it related to two bays where there was only one and did not even give an address it related too. (All witnessed and photographed).

    Croydon Council since April have been unable to answer who put up these signs. But multiple departments have confirmed it was not them.

    Perhaps it is the case of the Phantom sign poster which would fit with the Ghost Councillors and the fantasy services – nightmare housing – forget farce this has become like something out of Grimms fairy tales.

  4. Jim Bush says:

    Groundhog Day is avoidable though. Most organisations learn from their mistakes, but not Croydon Council who, straight after being taken to the cleaners by Jo Negreedy, now want to appoint another self-obsessed CEO. Perhaps Count Binface, who has no hope in the election tomorrow for London Mayor, will consider throwing his bin lid into the ring, and might even turn out to be the best CEO Croydon has had for years?

  5. Terence E McCarthy says:

    I simply cannot believe the salary she will get paid. This is £50,000 more than the Prime Minister gets. There are countless people out there better qualified and more capable than this woman who would do it for far less. Kick her into touch and get a real business person in to do the job.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Sadly that is the standard salary in public life. When a job is done well £200,000 – £350,000 is the going rate. However for some reason we repeatedly employ and reward failure – or is it? Perhaps when you look at what the performance measures actually are and what they are tasked with doing – or in fact not doing there may be an answer there.
      We expect services to be delivered and in time as required by the Borough. But perhaps that is not the reality. maybe the reality is that there is and never was enough money to meet the needs or demands. Maybe our Councillors are tasking the local administration not with delivery but with service management of the bare minimum it can get away with – but they are so terrible at even this management the failures are so obvious. Councillors are silent as they were the ones guiding or agreeing with the CEOs gimmicks to foll the electorate. Therefore they may feel obliged to remove said officials from office with a compromise agreement of say £400,000 as opposed to a disciplinary process to sack them. Perhaps this is why other councils then employ them for the same. There is a word for this – knowledgeable scapegoat!

    • Not that old Daily Mail bollocks again.

      As well as £161k, the Prime Minister gets pension contributions on top plus free accommodation. Plus the chance to make a fortune when he leaves office; have you ever seen a poor ex-Prime Minister?

      That £161k is a bargain compared to the money the Queen and her family get for giving us a wave and a smile every now and again – £67 million quid.

      It’s below the average salary paid to CEOs of private sector companies, well over £300k.

      It’s well below the bonuses paid to “top” bankers. Jes Staley of Barclays Bank just got a £843k bonus on top of his £4m salary.

      And it’s a fraction of the bribes paid by crooks to be handed multi-million pound contracts from the Tory government.

      In 2018 the Local Government Association researched what council chief executives were paid. The average then for those in London was £185k.

      Three years later, who would want to be paid £192k for managing a borough in crisis, where your bosses are inept councillors who you couldn’t trust to run a bath by themselves?

      What really counts is whether who gets the job does it well. Compared to Negrini, that should be easy.

  6. Cant say that I m surprised here !!!!!, Why do they hold Croydon in such contempt

  7. James Smyth says:

    Croydon is doomed under labour

    • It was the Tories who promoted corrupt Elvery and recruited Negrini.

      • Jim Bush says:

        And Bernard Weatherill House was built by Croydon Council uinder the Tories and named after the former speaker and Croydon MP by the then (Tory) council leader, Mike Fisher, which is why it is more usually called Fisher’s Folly !

        • Ian Kierans says:

          Do not forget the debt it ran up also and the non disclosure of information also – strangely pretty much the same across the parties and Sutton’s Lib Dem are no stranger to this either with the silliness at the SDEN and the high pollution of the incinerator – kind of makes a mockery of all the LTN s in Croydon. So was this ignorance, stupidity or did they have the wool pulled over their eyes or were misled.?

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Sorry James I personally could not be generalistic about any Political party except some of the more extremist ones. I have met many people in public life who do a difficult public service as Councillors and MPs and at sometimes great risk to themselves. It is sad that there are a number who are not competent and somewhat sleazy especially with the expenses and now the lobbying saga.
      I do agree that we are not best served with the bunch we had and the ones that failed to stand up against those purported to be bullying and controlling and that sadly covers both parties in Croydon and the people tasked with oversight also including the Council CEOs. I also understand the sentiment.

  8. “ is expected to apply for and to be offered the £192,474 per year job on a permanent basis”

    I bloody well hope not. This is history repeating itself with Tony Newman ‘offering’ the top job to council incumbent, Jo Negrini. She went on to hire a bunch of her mates who have all now been fired.

    Tony Newman’s imbecile-decision has cost this borough dearly and cost him his political career.

    I have no doubt Kerswell is up to the job, I just want it done without favours and ‘inside support’. If that can’t be achieved, she should not be allowed to apply.

  9. Can’t imagine there will be many who want the job – could be career-ending. But, then, who will throw their hat into the ring I wonder?

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