CROYDON IN CRISIS: The council’s search for new leadership has not gone very far, nor very wide. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
When the panel convenes next week to interview for the £192,474 post of council chief executive, they will see just two candidates, and one of those is the incumbent, Katherine Kerswell.
It may well be that that is exactly the way that Kerswell wants it.
As one disgruntled Town Hall insider said this week, “Even Hobson had more choice than this.”
Such a sparse field could well reflect the parlous state of the council’s affairs, which has deterred more, and more impressive, applicants. Seriously: who, with any sort of hard-earned reputation in local government, would want to squander it in trying to sort out the deep, deep mess created by the hubristic egotists such as Jo Negrini and Tony Newman?
But given that cash-strapped Croydon has paid around £20,000 – at least – in executive recruitment fees to headhunters Gatenby Sanderson, they might have been entitled to expect a bit more for their money.
The shortest of interview short-lists was drawn up at a meeting of the council’s appointments committee on Monday. Interviews are due to be held “in the week commencing May 24”, according to Gatenby Sanderson.
Another reason that more, and more credible, candidates may not have bothered applying for the Croydon job is the weapons-grade cobblers about the council to be found on the recruitment agency’s website.
“We are genuinely excited about our future,” the blurb gushes.
“Under the leadership of our new Chief Executive, we will continue to tackle inequality and poverty within the borough.” Shameless doesn’t even begin to cover it.
“We will provide the best quality services that we can and ensure our most vulnerable residents are safe.” Ditto.
“Through strong, trusting partnerships, we will find new ways of working to secure the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of all of Croydon’s residents and businesses.” Given Kerswell’s own personal liking for phrasing that sounds as if it has been written by David Brent on steroids, there must be a strong suspicion that she might have had a hand in the drafting of some of this job spec.
It gets worse.
Under a heading “What we need”, the online job ad states, “We know what we need.”
It goes on to pile management cliché on top of councilspeak, perhaps with the intention of driving away anyone with a scintilla of self-respect, or those who own a functioning bullshit detector.
“You will understand the financial challenge ahead,” it says, in a mastery of understatement. There’s the obligatory abuse of the word “journey”, or, as it is referred to here, “our turnaround journey”.
Apparently, candidates will need to show their capabilities for this “based on your past-experience”, presumably because past experience is the only kind of experience someone can actually possess (unless they are Marty McFly).
“You will be a leader that can influence and give assurance at the highest levels and be someone that can rebuild and reinvigorate a whole workforce behind a new vision. You will be a leader that proactively goes beyond the four walls of our authority to our residents and partners to build effective relationships that last.”
And here’s the clincher: “This is a job for an ambitious and resilient leader who, in the face of challenge, sees opportunity; the opportunity to lead us on our improvement journey and deliver the very best for the residents, communities and businesses of Croydon.” Our italics. For pity’s sake.
“With clarity comes confidence and determination.”
Or how about, “We are at a point of looking forward with renewed vigour to create a modern local authority, capable of dealing with tomorrow’s challenges today.” Our italics, again.
And it goes on, and on, and on. Croydon, applicants were told, apparently in all seriousness, has “a vibrant town centre”. It also flags up that the new CEO will have to organise London’s Borough of Culture in 2023, while not having a civic pot to piss in.
But here’s the rub.
If Kerswell is confirmed in the post of chief executive, she will be just the fifth person in that job since David Wechsler was appointed in 1993. Wechsler was one of those old-school models of local authority stability, working for Croydon Council for 23 years before spending 14 more in the top job – a period which saw significant projects undertaken and delivered, such as the Croydon tram network.
The last decade, meanwhile, has seen a succession of less-impressive chancers – Nathan Elvery and Negreedy, following Jon Rouse – come and go. None left their mark in any kind of positive way, but they did leave a council ultimately mired in crisis and chaos, children’s services in special measures, and a management culture where allegations of bullying were widespread.
And none of them were ever expected to work alongside a directly-elected mayor.
But that’s the situation which could soon confront Kerswell or her unnamed rival for the job. There is to be a referendum in October over whether the borough’s residents want to abandon the laughingly described “strong leader” model of running the borough, and switch to having an elected mayor.
If the vote for change wins, then a mayor will be elected in May 2022.
It is possible that, after just nine months in the job as the “permanent” council chief executive, the post-holder gets a summons from Croydon’s first elected mayor, who tells them that while they admire their hard work and dedication, they really don’t think they are right for the job, and would they make sure that they don’t let the door hit their arse on their way out…
It has happened before.
In December 2011, Kent County Council got rid of their “managing director” after they’d had 16 months in the job, time in which they introduced a £340million cuts plan and 1,500 staff redundancies. On that occasion, Katherine Kerswell – for it was she – walked away with a pay-off worth nearly a full Negrini, £420,000.
Stranger things have happened.
Read more: ‘Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue’
Read more: More worries over Kerswell’s suitability for council top job
Read more: Official accused of bullying Regina Road tenants over meeting
Read more: Exec director resigned week before suspension was announced
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