Town Hall reporter KEN LEE says that the controversy surrounding the squalid conditions in council homes in South Norwood seems likely to be stoked further tonight over disputed claims that the council leader, Hamida Ali, has met with residents in the ‘worst flats in Britain’
Alison Knight, who Croydon’s cash-strapped council announced last week as the interim executive director of housing to clear up the housing mess uncovered by ITV News in tower blocks on Regina Road, is to be paid £104,000 for “an initial six months”.
The startling revelation is contained in official council papers ahead of tonight’s cabinet meeting at the Town Hall.
The figure, were it rolled out on an annual basis, would make Knight Croydon’s top-paid executive. Her appointment comes at a time when the council, which declared itself bankrupt just six months ago, is in the process of making more than 500 frontline staff redundant.
Knight is due to take up her new job at the end of this month. Before a short spell as a consultant with a local authority in Essex, Knight had previously worked at another Labour-controlled council mired in controversy, Sandwell in the Midlands, where she failed to survive a management restructure at the end of last year when invited to re-apply for her job.
She has been hired by Croydon “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 in South Norwood, 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’s appointment is understood to have been the personal choice of interim chief executive Katherine Kerswell. Kerswell’s own future at Fisher’s Folly is up for discussion at an appointments committee this afternoon, which is meeting to decide the shortlist and candidates for interview for the permanent CEO’s job.
Knight’s astronomical salary is being revealed to councillors in tonight’s cabinet papers when the matter is a fait accompli, with the appointment already made. The money to pay Knight’s extravagant salary is not coming from the council’s general fund, but is being appropriated from the ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account, which is usually supposed to be used for the maintenance and repair of the council’s housing stock.
It is the HRA that Kerswell and her interim director of finance, Chris Buss, want to raid for at least £30million to pay for 104 flats from Brick by Brick, another seemingly already-determined matter being presented as a done-deal to the borough’s elected representatives tonight.
In the council papers for the cabinet meeting, they say, “This report notes the exercise of delegated authority to appoint an interim executive director of housing, for an initial six months at a total cost of £104,250, including relevant on-costs, to be funded by the Housing Revenue Account(HRA). Other necessary expenditure to drive improvement will be identified by the new interim executive director and reported/approved in accordance with the council’s governance processes.”
Elsewhere in the report, it states that Knight’s appointment “will be reviewed after six months by the appointments committee in accordance with the council’s constitution”.
Knight’s pay works out at £800 per day – or about half the combined day rate paid to the duo of Paddy Mooney and Kieran Colgan, the consultants from Ark Consultancy who put together the immediate investigation report into the circumstances that led to the appalling conditions of the Regina Road flats. Tonight’s cabinet meeting will discuss the findings of Mooney and Colgan’s report.
The Ark report found “a failure to deliver even basic ‘core’ housing services effectively. They are potentially symptomatic of poor performance across the council’s housing service and impact on its ability to drive for self-improvement”.
Knight’s appointment, according to Katharine Street sources, is to pave the way to closing down entirely the council’s housing department, to be replaced by an ALMO – an Arm’s-length management organisation, of the type which was in charge of the Grenfell Tower at the time of the tragic 2017 fire. Kerswell’s plan is believed to have the backing of Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North and the affected flats in South Norwood.
Lambeth council introduced an ALMO when Reed was council leader there, though it emerged last week that Brixton Town Hall is under investigation by the Housing Ombudsman for failing to comply with new complaint-handling failure orders.
The 18-page report is likely to incite fury among residents of the flats, including some of the flats that have been featured in news broadcasts in March and since.
The report claims, “The leader of the council and cabinet member for homes both spoke to residents, including those who have been most affected, to offer apologies, answer questions and hear feedback.” The Regina Road Residents’ Support Group state that this is categorically untrue, and that Hamida Ali, the council leader, has refused all their invitations for a meeting.
Councillor Ali had previously maintained that she knew nothing of the plight of the residents until she was contacted by the television producers in March.
But last week, she finally admitted that she had received at least one email in November 2020. The email had lain in her inbox, without any response from the council’s new leader.
The report to cabinet goes on to twist the truth further, claiming that, “At the request of residents a private meeting was held with the leader, cabinet member, ward councillors and the chief executive and interim director of place, to which residents of the three blocks at Regina Road were invited.”
The residents’ support group maintain that the council’s offer of an online meeting was rejected, that invitations were hand-picked by council officials, and that many of those living in the worst conditions never even received an invite.
Some residents have complained that Sarah Hayward, the council director of place, effectively bullied them over the meeting.
The Regina Road Residents’ Support Group, backed by the London Renters’ Union, is planning to stage a protest outside the Town Hall from 6pm tonight.
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