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”.
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.
“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.
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.
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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