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