Croydon Council has appointed a doctor to try to heal the deep wounds caused to its reputation over the scandal of damp and mouldy flats in South Norwood.
Dr Alison Knight – her doctorate was in education – was revealed this morning as Croydon’s interim executive director for housing, according to the council, “to co-ordinate widespread improvements to how council residents are listened to and looked after”.
That’s an oblique reference to the four-year neglect of three blocks of flats on Regina Road, where dozens of residents have had to put up with unhealthy, squalid conditions. When the flats featured on ITV News in March, a housing expert described the conditions within as “the worst in Britain”.
Knight has washed up in Croydon, via a short stay working in Thurrock, largely because of a management restructure going on at her previous employers, Labour-controlled Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council.
Invited to re-apply for her job towards the end of 2020, Knight missed out. “And in Sandwell, that takes some doing,” according to a well-informed Midlander.
Sandwell was for many years the fiefdom of Tom Watson, the Labour MP who was supposed to be party deputy leader to Jeremy Corbyn, but who many regard as being among the ringleaders of attempts to depose the Magic Grandad.
Blairite Watson exercised much influence over his local council, where a parliamentary aide was among the local councillors (sound familiar?).
Sandwell even had a council leader, Steve Eling, who in 2019, following complaints, was suspended by the Labour Party (sound familiar?).
According to sources familiar with Sandwell council matters, Knight had a hand in two of that borough’s biggest controversies of the last decade. This included, most recently, Knight advocating for local playing fields off the M5 to be used to build a trendy village outlet shopping development, promising to create thousands of jobs (sound familiar?).
The problem with the Lion Farm playing fields scheme was always that the site is only a short distance away from another new shopping centre site, one proposed by Hammerson (remember them?), the multi-billion mall operators who clearly would take a dim view on Sandwell council officials being behind a rival project.
Luckily for Hammerson, the £200million Lion Farm scheme has yet to be granted planning permission,
Today, Croydon Council’s propaganda department was claiming that when at Sandwell as their “executive director – neighbourhoods”, Knight had “led on an improvement programme for 27,000 council homes, and delivered 600 new homes…” – which is about five times as many as Brick by Brick have managed in Croydon in the last five years – and that she has, “introduced performance measures and a culture change programme that achieved high customer satisfaction levels on repairs”.
In Croydon, Knight will have “a brief to transform the way its housing services are run and give residents a much greater say in these improvements”. This is against a backdrop of Croydon Council being broke and in the middle of laying off at least 500 front-line staff.
The council says Knight’s “… appointment is one of a range of immediate and long-term steps the council is taking to improve housing services across the board, after commissioning an independent report into unacceptable conditions at some of its properties.” According to sources at Fisher’s Folly, Knight’s appointment was the decision of Katherine Kerswell, the interim chief executive.
It was Hamida Ali, the council leader, who was wheeled out to provide the obligatory quote of welcome for the appointee. “We are determined to improve everything about the service we give to our council residents, and this appointment underlines we are serious about raising Croydon’s housing standards, and at pace,” Ali is supposed to have said.
Knight was also quoted, using the sort of “passionate” vocabulary normally used by callow first-job interviewees: “I am passionate about delivering excellent services to local people, and this role is a great opportunity to help make sure everyone in council homes feels cared for and receives a really good, responsive experience across our teams.”
Some might consider Knight as taking on a poisoned chalice at Croydon’s cash-strapped council, though it might be the holy grail for senior local government employees: a job where she really can’t do any worse than her predecessors.
The council’s improvement plan drawn up in response to the Ark report – which found systemic failures and incompetence at the council leading to the failures at Regina Road – will be discussed at Monday’s cabinet meeting.
Earlier that same evening outside the Town Hall, the Regina Road Residents’ Association, which Hamida Ali has so far broken her promises to meet in person, will be staging a protest demonstration.
Read more: Investigation finds systemic failure and incompetence in council
Read more: Only 10% of council housing repair jobs ever get checked
Read more: Ali accused of cover-up over findings on council flats scandal
Read more: Croydon shamed over ‘dangerous squalor’ in council flats
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