Mystery of the ‘lost’ £600,000 expert report into Fairfield Halls

Sound stage: a report into the planned refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, commissioned from construction consultants Mott MacDonald in 2016, cannot be found by the council

CROYDON IN CRISIS: Suspicions mount over the business of Brick by Brick and the scandal surrounding the Fairfield Halls refurbishment. But even members of the Town Hall’s scrutiny committee are being denied vital information by council directors. By STEVEN DOWNES

Senior executives appointed by council CEO Katherine Kerswell have told councillors on the scrutiny committee that they can’t have a vital consultants’ report into the £69million refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls – because they don’t know where to find it.

The facts behind the failure of council-owned Brick by Brick, the house-builders who were supposed to deliver tens of millions to the council but who ended up costing Council Tax-payers hundreds of millions, remain a mystery, even to elected councillors serving on the scrutiny committee.

Why Brick by Brick’s flagship project to refurbish the Fairfield Halls took so long, and managed to spend so much public money, and who is going to be held responsible, are among the questions which remain stubbornly unanswered.

Specialist consultants have now been hired, at even more cost to Croydon residents, to assess what more might be needed to repair the damage done during the incomplete and unfinsihed Brick by Brick refurb of the borough’s arts centre.

Yet those same residents who are footing these mounting bills are not allowed to know how this debacle happened.

Following the council’s financial meltdown last year, there was widespread and repeated criticism of the council’s scrutiny committee, which has been chaired since 2014 by Sean Fitzsimons.

Fitzsimon’s committee was found to have a “lack of understanding of the urgency of the financial position” and needed “greater rigour”. The performance of the cross-party committee was described in a review conducted for the government as being “unchallenging”.

Asmat Hussain: council exec director receives ‘a lot of emails’

Yet since those reports were published, members of the scrutiny committee – councillors elected to represent the borough’s residents – have found their quests for more and better-detailed information to be blocked by senior council directors, and by Fitzsimons.

It was 2016 when Tony Newman, when leader of the council, promised to share a report on the Fairfield Halls redevelopment by construction consultants Mott MacDonald.

But that report remains secret.

According to two of the council’s most senior executives – Kerswell appointees Asmat Hussain, the interim executive director of resources, and Sarah Hayward, the interim exec director of Place – the report can not be found within the council.

Since this report cost around £600,000 and was the crucial piece of documentation supporting the decisions made on refurbishing the Fairfield Halls, “this is a little surprising”, according to one Katharine Street source.

Among the lame excuses offered by Hussain and Hayward for not being able to provide the missing report was that they weren’t working at the council then, or that they receive a lot of emails.

Members of the scrutiny committee were left speechless when Hayward admitted that no one had thought to ask Mott MacDonald to provide a copy of their report.

“That was disappointing, to say the least,” according to one committee member.

The council has also refused to release the report under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, even breaking the law by ignoring a request,  one among several from Robert Ward, a Tory councillor who is the vice-chair of the scrutiny committee.

At the latest meeting of the scrutiny committee, further debate on withheld information surrounding the Mott MacDonald report, the Fairfield Halls and Brick by Brick was cut short by the meeting chair, Fitzsimons.

“His concern was that we should not be discussing the matter without the full information in front of us,” Ward told Inside Croydon. “Which is rather the point.”

The missing Mott MacDonald report is just the latest in a series of detailed work into the performance of the council and its subsidiaries which have been withheld or made unavailable by Krswell and her officials.

External auditors, Grant Thornton, were supposed to have published their “urgent” Value for Money audit of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment by mid-February.

After £10,000 spent on external legal advice, that  report, too, has now has disappeared into the same void as the investigation conducted last year by the Local Government Association consultant Richard Penn into possible wrong-doing at Croydon Council.

Sean Fitzsimons: scrutiny chair, still covering up for council officials

As Inside Croydon reported previously, Ward has managed to irk Fitzsimons by submitting a lengthy list of documents about the performance of Brick by Brick and their mismanagement of the Fairfield Halls project which, in his view, ought to be placed in the public domain and subjected to review by the scrutiny committee.

An unauthorised invitation to Grant Thornton’s Sarah Ironmonger to attend an earlier scrutiny meeting to explain the reasons for the delay in delivering the Value for Money review clearly infuriated Fitzsimons.

Yet the majority the documents which Ward has requested, some going back severall months, are yet to be made available by the council officials.

A formal request for the paperwork was submitted supporting the scrutiny call-in meeting of May 17. This, like previous requests, was ignored.

Not for the first time, Kerswell and her directors preferred to break the law rather than provide councillors with the information that they requested. No written statement setting out the council’s reasons for that decision was provided, in contravention of Statutory Guidance.

And if the council officials don’t ignore councillors, they issued contemptuous excuses claiming that they are far too busy to be bothered with such matters.

A recommendation was made at a previous meeting of the scrutiny committee that “a review be undertaken of past lending to Brick by Brick to provide greater clarity over the arrangements and to ensure that the arrangements were legally compliant”.

This was rejected by council officials on the grounds that “Council has limited resources to undertake this type of post mortem, it is more important to ensure that good practice is embedded into future arrangements”.

The officials’ response added that the “Value for Money review from Grant Thornton into the work on Fairfield Hall will add more to our understanding on this issue”.

Which would be nice – but the question this prompts of Kerswell and her highly-paid council directors is when will they allow this important information to be made public?

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24 Responses to Mystery of the ‘lost’ £600,000 expert report into Fairfield Halls

  1. John says:

    About time the police were called in to ensure that no fraud has taken place

  2. Ask Motts for a copy of the report? Or is that a silly idea? Having worked for them, I have total confidence in them, their impartiality and their honesty.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Quite right – Better yet as Motts to send the report to Inside Croydon for full publication – I mean come on it has been taxpayers money that paid for it and therefore it is ours also.

      • We did ask. But Mott MacDonald refused our request, citing a confidentiality agreement with their clients (ie. the council).

        • Ian Kierans says:

          Well at least we know they still have the report and that the Council by default have not asked them for a copy. Even if that was confidential to confirm. Makes their reason of ”Lost” more unbelievable.

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    Difficult to believe this report is missing. But if a person admits they forgot to ask the actual expert they need to be seriously downgraded in role as that smacks of gross incompetence and clearly should not be in a role of responsibility.
    The cavalier attitude to disclosure and the lack of intervention (timely) by the ICO strongly suggests there needs to be a strengthening of this legislation and the penalties served on individuals in authority who withhold data by incompetence, or design.

    The purpose of regulations and exemptions is to strike a balance between allowing disclosure and maintaining confidentiality in the public interest. When the legislation is misused or ignored with trite excuses and impunity then the Holding Legislative department/Regulator and the legislation itself falls into disrepute – as does the Governmental institutions involved.

    Hmm well this lot have already annhialated the bottom of the cess and are currently about -90.0° S. Longitude: 0.0° E. in morals and ethics and competence. One wonders about the message being sent here?

    Is all this data being withheld so that legal cases can be built for prosecution or legal cases being built for defense? Perhaps even saying this data is restricted due to ongoing investigations would in some cases be a breech of confidentiality and let the public know that parties are under investigation. Thence appearing grossly stupid is a more favorable approach.

    So the question is If someone professes to be an incompetent idiot and unable to find a £600k report One has to wonder why Jenryck allowed them to be employed on 6 figure salaries? Is he an amoeba also or is there something more at work here and as usual we are the mushrooms?

  4. David Simons says:

    The Mott MacDonald report may never be found, as it will show just how inept BxB were, forever choosing the cheapest M&E options and over engineering simple things!

    The Fairfield Halls saga is a total embarrassment for the arts community of Croydon… magnified further by the appalling programme being advertised for the halls and the lack of cooperation with the taxpayer by the Bournemouth leisure centre fools who now manage the venue and who have had more than their fair share of cash from us all.

    • Dan Maertens says:

      Great comment! Yes, the Fairfield Halls saga IS an embarrassment – a monument for all to see of the idiocy of the council. And Jenryck IS an amoeba, there must something more at work here.

  5. CentralCroydon says:

    Obviously beyond the capability of Kerswell and her chums to ask the consultants for another copy of the report. That would be too easy. They would rather spend another small fortune on more consultants.

  6. Lancaster says:

    I am sure Kerswell’s promised investigation into any mismanagement and or maladministration by councilors and or directors; promised to council staff at her ‘webinar’s’ will show who, what, where, when and why.

  7. Can’t find it? Don’t want it found, more like it.

    What other explanation could there be?

    A deliberate cover-up is what this is, of something that spells political suicide for those named in it, and possibly could attract the attention of plod.

  8. moyagordon says:

    Is this a Jedi mind trick being played on us? Reminds me of Star Wars when as approaching a space base Obi Wan Kenobi says, ‘You will never find the more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.’ And to the stormtroopers, ‘You don’t need to see his identification (report). These aren’t the droids (councillors) you’re looking for. They can go about their business, move along.’

  9. Lewis White says:

    Perhaps even now, a copy of the report is lying in the bottom of a wheely or Euro bin, in a dark corner of the Beddington incinerator, along with discarded press releases from 2019, bigging up the success of Brick by Brick, and a screwed-up HR “file copy” of details of Jo Negrini’s redundancy package.

  10. Carrie Low says:

    I just can’t believe that no action has been taken, if I had acted as these people at Croydon Council have I would find myself in prison for fraud!! What more has to happen to stop this ridiculous situation and for anymore public money to be wasted!!! It’s a joke it really is.

  11. miapawz says:

    is it possible that the report is so bad and BXB have so many flies round them after reading it, that they have popped in a locked drawer and claimed it is lost?

  12. miapawz says:

    Also what kind of report costs £600,000?????

    • What kind of report costs £600k? One considerably more damning and thorough than Croydon council officers ever wanted to see, which was technically incomprehensible to the contractors’ (BxB) and was probably discarded when all concerned realised it was way, way beyond all of them. Mott MacDonald are international consulting civil engineers and doubtless now realise that they were working with complete bungling idiots. The nearest I can imagine is when the builder faced Basil Fawlty after he employed a clueless handyman to make changes and risked demolishing the hotel. However Fawlty saw sense and told the expert to put it right, and BxB let the experts leave while hiding their report.I’m pretty certain that Motts still have their copies, though.

      • miapawz says:

        I was partially sarc with the comment as it does seem rather steep? It had better be good for that amount. £600,000 is of course, another cost for the council tax payer to foot and there is the missing nature of the report…. FOI request to see it anyone?

    • Ian Ross says:

      One I’d like the contract to produce!

  13. Ian Ross says:

    The more time goes on the more this level of incompetence becomes the norm and we, the tax payer, expect it and, perish the thought, accept it.
    This report was not hand written on ancient parchment to be lost in some Raiders of the Lost Ark style crate. It’s an electronic document and for £600k I’d expect it to be thorough. I’d also expect it to be in the public domain since the public have paid for it. Handsomely.
    There is a fine line between incompetence and criminal negligence. I don’t think it controversial to suggest that this rabble have crossed that line and a full criminal investigation needed without delay.

    • Seriously, Ian, there’s no mystery. The report exists, Mott MacDonald confirm that. There’s at least two places at the council which ought to hold archived copies of it. Some suggest that the report has even previously been published on the council’s own website (which ought to be a reminder for someone to go hunting it down on WayBack).
      The truth here is that the council’s senior executives don’t want to be held accountable to the borough’s elected councillors nor the public, and it is easier for them to try to pretend that they have in some manner “lost” the report. Like being crassly incompetent might be seen as being in some way better.

  14. I’ll tell you what is truly sad. Senior Council officials used to be the upholders of the law, the people who did what the politicians asked them to do, who advised them about realities, possibilities, procedures and probity. Now what has happened in Croydon is that the viral disregard for accountability and thorough probity that has infected our Council leaders for a long time has now infected the paid officials and destroyed the virtue of their profession and office. A nice, conscientious, genuinely honest elected Mayor with no strong political allegiances ( yes, I do ask a lot) may be the only way to breach the bulwarks of bullshit behind which so many of our local politicians take shelter. One can dream!

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