CROYDON IN CRISIS: Not for the first time, elected councillors have been denied vital information about Town Hall deals.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon Conservatives have “called in” for extra scrutiny three multi-million-pound deals intended to off-load the council’s loss-making development company, Brick by Brick, in a sweetheart sale which risks costing the borough’s residents more than £100million.
Robert Ward, the councillor for Selsdon and Addington Village, and the deputy chair of the council’s scrutiny committee, wants the latest £10million loan to Brick by Brick, the £69million piece of balance sheet juggling and the purchase of 104 flats from the failed housing developers all to be discussed afresh at a meeting this Thursday.
And Ward is demanding that he and the scrutiny committee’s other members should also be granted sight of 18 key documents, some dating back five years.
The paperwork relates to Brick by Brick and the various land deals and contracts around the Fairfield Halls refurbishment. Council officials have stubbornly refused to release the reports and contracts, even to the borough’s elected representatives, using “commercial confidentiality” as their excuse.
The latest proposed financial deals, which taken together could cost the council an estimated £110million, were all brought forward by Chris Buss, the interim finance director who was originally brought in to the council last year with the intention of staunching the constant flow of cash into the Brick by Brick money pit.
The official’s proposals were all duly rubber-stamped by the Labour-controlled council cabinet last week, when council leader Hamida Ali allowed barely any questioning from the opposition Tory group.
The scrutiny call-in papers were released over the weekend. “This item has been triggered by the call-in of the decision (1421CAB) by the Cabinet on 17 May 2021 on the Ongoing Review of Brick by Brick Croydon Ltd and associated matters relating to the company,” they state.
The call-in was signed by Ward and 17 of his Conservative colleagues. Inside Croydon is aware of several Labour councillors, including at least one front-bencher, who also have growing disquiet about the manner in which millions more of public cash is being used to sweeten the rushed sale of Brick by Brick to Manchester-based developers, Urban Splash – who Buss has lined up as the preferred and only bidder for the council-owned company.
The lack-of-scrutiny offered by a committee chaired by Labour councillor Sean Fitzsimons was the subject of particular criticism from external auditors over the council’s financial collapse. “But if council officials repeatedly refuse to release documents to council members, then it renders any such scrutiny of the officials’ actions impossible,” a Katharine Street source said today.
Ahead of Thursday’s scrutiny meeting, the council papers say that the reasons for the call-in are, “1) To hold the decision-takers to account on their decision and to the evidence that underpins their reasoning to lend Brick by Brick a further £10million.
“2) To hold the decision-takers to account on their decision and to the evidence that underpins their reasoning that novating the Fairfield Halls refurbishment contracts to the Council and changing the status of the costs of the refurbishment from a capital loan to Brick by Brick to the Council’s capital programme is in the best interests of Croydon residents.
“3) To obtain reassurance that the purchase of the additional 104 housing units represents good value for money and that any additional purchases meet the same criterion.”
The meeting’s agenda pack – which still carries the laughable slogan from the Tony Newman era of “Delivering for Croydon”, without a hint of irony nor a shred of shame – includes an appendix listing the paperwork that Ward is demanding to see, but which council officials have stubbornly kept secret for years.
It is understood that Ward, a semi-retired project manager, has requested all of the documents under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. And council officials have refused to release any of the documents.
The requested documents list includes some Part B papers – from the parts of council meetings usually only discussed behind closed doors – as well as correspondence with third parties, such as Mott MacDonald, which might at last explain why the Croydon-based global construction firm walked off the Fairfield Halls project in 2017, the first significant sign that there were serious problems with the scheme, as was exclusively revealed by Inside Croydon.
And Ward has also requested documents which investigations by Inside Croydon have already shown simply do not exist: such as evidence of a competitive tendering process to appoint Brick by Brick as refurbishment manager for the Fairfield Halls, because, as the council was forced to admit last year, no such competitive tender was ever held.
The documents also include the report from auditors Grant Thornton on the Fairfield Halls refurbishment, “in draft form if necessary”. The report is believed to have been completed in April, and was written by the same team which issued the Report In Public Interest on the council last October, ultimately ending the leadership of Tony Newman.
Grant Thornton were understood to be investigating the possibility that illegal payments may have been made over the refurbishment.
The Fairfield report is the latest which the council’s interim chief exec, Katherine Kerswell, has been reluctant to release to the public.
The full list of documents requested as part of the scrutiny call-in is as follows:
- Facility Agreement between Croydon Council and Brick by Brick dated 26th September 2016.
- Mott MacDonald report to the council on Fairfield Halls cost estimates and refurbishment options
- Licence agreement between the council and Brick by Brick to refurbish Fairfield Halls
- Specifications required by the council for refurbishing the Fairfield Halls for delivery by Brick by Brick
- Contract between Brick by Brick and Vinci for refurbishing Fairfield Halls including specifications of works.
- Documentation showing how Brick by Brick was selected to refurbish the Fairfield Halls.
- Documentation showing how Vinci was selected by Brick by Brick to refurbish the Fairfield Halls.
- Project Initiation Document for College Green and Fairfield Halls Integrated Project as mentioned in the Final Internal Audit Report into the Fairfield Delivery dated June 2017.
- Fairfield Halls Programme Board minutes.
- Conditional sale document for the Fairfield car park.
- All external legal advice received by the council in regard to the council’s relationship with and funding of Brick by Brick
- Correspondence between Mott MacDonald and Croydon Council concerning Mott MacDonald leaving the Fairfield Halls project around Q3 2017.
- Procedures and meeting records, including presentational material, of council committees set up to manage relationship with Brick by Brick.
- Change requests/variation orders agreed by Croydon Council to the original work scope for the Fairfield Halls, and cost and other impacts of each change
- Change requests/variation orders agreed by Brick by Brick with Vinci and others to original Fairfield Halls work scope, and cost of each change.
- Part B papers from the following Cabinet meetings and the subsequently agreed minutes on these items: a. 20th October 2015: College Green Cultural and Educational Quarter
b. 20th June 2016: Brick by Brick Croydon Ltd – Property and Financing
- Value for money audit of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment, if necessary a draft version
- Valuations of the units intended to be purchased and the process by which this was achieved.
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender
Read more: Massive discounts on land sales raise more questions on BxB
Read more: Kakistocracy: Butler forced into £6m bail-out of Brick by Brick
Read more: A level of ineptitude which would be tolerated nowhere else
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Itis time for all the Councillors to be united in approach on behalf of us their constituents.
All documents should be released for scrutiny and especially in the current circumstances. If the Council for whatever purpose determines they should be withheld for legal purpose then those buildings should not move from Council ownership.
Let us make no bones about this, the Council has a duty as do the Councillors. Residents are paying for the disgusting and reprehensible actions of those said Councillors and Council executives with cuts in services, cuts to required public works, sweeping cuts to enforcement areas, departments, and front facing staff, not to mention the complete failure of any public communications to residents affected by these unilateral decisions by Ms Kerswell et all. I honestly feel at present this executive does not warrant an iota of trust or support from anyone.
Every action and activity of this executive and Councillors should be held up to Public scrutiny for one simple reason – To regain Public trust in Elected officers and employed Executives.
Nelson Mandela gave South Africa Truth and Reconciliation, Ireland gave victims a Board of redress. Surely Croydon Council can seek to follow those examples of setting matters right, let us have full disclosure on everything – put it all on the Website get it over with and then remedy what you can. Going forward this council will need the support of the community in making things work better with less .Our Community deserves better from both sides of its Administration. It should start with the truth and full disclosure on every matter. If a company wants to buy our assets then expect public scrutiny. At least then the council will have the residents on board and working in partnership going forward.
Well said Ian, it is about time all the councillors stood united on this situation. It is just a joke and something needs to happen soon
Maybe Councillor Ward will achieve what Croydon Labour Party have failed to even attempt: the enforced departure from office of councillor Alison Butler. All power to your elbow Bob!
Regarding Freedom of Information…The exemption (under Section 43 of the FOI) is actually something prejudicial to commercial interests (rather than commercial confidentiality which a lot of FOI officers equate to legal privilege…. assuming just because it was a £ in it, it’s exempt).
Obviously some of the documents requested won’t be disclosed – (11) for example seems to be exempt under legal privilege… but I’d be amazed that papers going back to 2016 would be exempt in terms of commercial interests given the shifting market conditions, rates etc…
Incidentally it’s good that BxB are finally having to deal with FOI requests on themselves. There should never have been any issue given they’re 100% owned by the Council, but managed to wriggle off the hook for a long time before finally giving in at the start of last year. I’d recommend the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow.com website for people interested in them to make requests through.
There is actually some precedent for the Information Commissioner’s Office upholding appeals against local authorities who try to withhold information on the basis of “commercial confidentiality”. The ICO has held in the past that where a council is using public money, then the public has a right to know how it is being spent, regardless of the local government officials pretending that they are working in some corporate environment.