CROYDON IN CRISIS: Council leadership acknowledges a need for significant change from the authority’s previous culture, in which bullying, cronyism and racism were alleged. But tens of millions of pounds of cuts in services cannot be avoided. By STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon’s cash-strapped council had “lost its way”, according to the authority’s recently confirmed chief executive, Katherine Kerswell, as she made a new call for greater transparency over the way her organisation operates.
Kerswell was responding to suggestions made by some council staff that under her predecessors, there had developed a “‘collusive, very unhealthy culture’,” according to an article published this week by the Municipal Journal, which had also received “reports of bullying, and lots of claims of race discrimination, nepotism and cronyism”.
Sources at Fisher’s Folly have told Inside Croydon that similar allegations were made, including naming some individuals responsible, by witnesses who spoke to the Local Government Association’s Richard Penn for a report into the council’s collapse. Although Kerswell received the Penn Report in February, she has yet to make its findings public.
Elsewhere in the interview with the Municipal Journal, Kerswell made a point of rejecting the idea that councils, such as Croydon, can spend public money on having a peer review – effectively a local authority MOT, conducted by the Local Government Association – and yet then choose not to publish the outcome.
“At the moment,” Kerswell said, “it’s really quite private. People can still decide whether or not a peer review is published. I don’t think that’s healthy. We are public bodies – we should be really transparent.”
Asked about the “cultural” issues she inherited when she arrived at Fisher’s Folly 12 months ago, Kerswell said, “I think what I have learned about this style of culture is a lot of it was very closed and people hunkered down and, sort of, learned, I think, not to raise, not to speak out because it didn’t get you anywhere, it didn’t solve the problem, and people got on and tried to do good things despite the organisation.
“If you’re in a dysfunctional organisation, staff don’t feel they can say ‘That isn’t right’ or ‘That isn’t working’.
“One of the things staff were saying was this was not a healthy culture in terms of respect for individuals, respect for diversity and people did not feel valued. I think the phrase staff used over and over again was they could not bring their whole selves to work.”
Kerswell’s comments echo some of the findings from independent consultants who in May reported on the circumstances which led to the appalling conditions in many flats in council-run residential blocks on Regina Road in South Norwood.
In the council’s housing department and with the repairs contractors, the consultants found “a poor operating culture with a lack of care and respect for tenants”, with senior managers at the council “who do not appear to know what is going on”, and “a lack of capacity and competence”.
Much of the subtext of that report was also uncannily similar to the findings of Ofsted inspectors in 2017 when they declared Croydon’s children’s services a real danger to some of the vulnerable youngsters in the council’s care.
In the MJ interview, Kerswell, together with the leader of the Labour-controlled council, Hamida Ali, made much about how they have turned round the finances of the bankrupt borough, which last November became just the second local authority in England and Wales in 20 years to issue a Section 114 notice – an admission that they would be unable to balance their budget.
The Municipal Journal reports that Croydon has reported a balanced budget for the first quarter (April to June) of 2021-2022 and is on track to deliver its financial plan this year.
Unmentioned is that Croydon has received a £120million bail-out from central government – the largest in British history – to cover the covid-hit 2020-2021 and the current financial year.
The government cash – £70million for 2020-21 and £50million for this financial year – comes with strings attached, including the need for £44million of savings this year.
The magazine reports, “To balance the budget next year it needs to make £63million savings on top of £24million of transformation savings that have already been identified as part of the council’s medium-term financial strategy.”
And after a decade of government-imposed austerity, the MJ offers this context: “These are massive figures for an authority with a £277million budget.”
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