‘Dysfunctional’ council had ‘lost its way’, says CEO Kerswell

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

Culture club: leader Hamida Ali and chief exec Katherine Kerswell claim that they have turned the council round

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’.

Crisis point: long-term failures over the council’s management of flats in Regina Road, South Norwood, were highlighted in an independent consultants’ report

“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.”

Read more: Ali promises to release report into ‘collusive, unhealthy culture’
Read more: Officials to investigate possible wrong-doing at council
Read more: Council forced to declare itself bankrupt

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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18 Responses to ‘Dysfunctional’ council had ‘lost its way’, says CEO Kerswell

  1. David Simons says:

    “Lost it’s way” that is unbelievable! Children lose their way, highly paid executives and elected officials do not. She talks of transparency but has sat on the Fairfield/BxB report for months. This council will be judged at the ballot box and only the party that returns Fairfield Halls to the people of the borough should be given a vote by the vast Croydon arts community. Report after report, headline after headline makes a laughing stock of the hard working people of our town. What message are we sending to the next generation of residents? Labour OUT, Chief Executive position OUT, A Mayor for all of Croydon IN. All in good time…

    • A directly elected mayor will not replace the chief executive, nor the other dozen or so council employees, all on salaries of £100,000 or more, who run the borough as they wish with virtually no accountability to anyone.

  2. Maverick says:

    No disrespect to CEO Kerswell, but as a former employee of the Council we have heard all this crap before.

    I find it strange that after 12 months the penny may have finally dropped that there are major issues within the council’s culture towards the welfare of its staff.

    For one who raised concerns regarding bullying of staff by a member of staff who to no great surprise was promoted to Directors level . This was the same person who single handle dismantled one of the best sections within the council that was respected by a number of other council within London. This included a number being made redundant who were seen to be more qualified than their manager.

    So those who are still working at the Council my heart goes out to you as you will never be valued while you have directors with no formal qualifications for their role and only have their own interest at heart.

    • Rod Davies says:

      As a former employee of Croydon Council I wholly agree with you. However, it was my perception that the rot had started in the 1980’s. Just look at how Croydon Council reacted to the early 1990’s recession – it was totally lost and unable to respond rationally. Professional officers, paid very well compared with other London boroughs, exhibited a complete lack of vision and simply regurgitated well worn epithets about Croydon’s alleged uniqueness. (It is not unique – it is a local authority like any other in 99% of is functions).
      Neither Conservative nor Labour parties engaged sufficiently to identify the areas of dysfunction and address them. Officers routinely exploited their laissez faire stance to hide failure. The 2 parties hired 3 successive CEO’s who proved incapable of performing to the level required.
      The proposal to have a directly elected mayor is merely a distraction and an attempt by the Conservatives to grab power. Far from delivering change, the election of a mayor may result in nothing being done for months & months as the individual tries to grasp the issues and develop a comprehensive action plan.
      Until both parties and the entire borough engage in an open examination of how Croydon Council got itself into the current mess, and how everyone will contribute to getting it out of it; then there will be no progress.

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    Marvelous that Ms Kerswell values transparency (as does Ms Ali.) Perhaps that could start with themselves and responding to questions emails and FOI requests as to exactly how they do operate which have been outstanding for quite some time?

  4. Geoff James says:

    So the numerous experts independently conclude that THE COUNCIL WAS NOT LISTENING. The comments keep saying the council was not listening to its voters (AKA Council tax payers), teachers, care workers, and their own staffers. The referendum on Oct 7 will enable the Council to have an elected Mayor run the borough. The elected mayor may not solve all the problems but one thing the elected mayor will do is to “force the council to listen”.

    • Actually, Geoff, a directly elected mayor will not “force the council to listen” any more than a “strong” leader and 69 other councillors have failed to “force the council to listen” over the course of the past decade.

      In terms of the two systems of governance on the referendum voting paper for October 7, a directly elected mayor is just #ABitLessShit.

      But unless or until council officials start to operate in a non-dysfunctional manner, taking their instructions and lead from the public and their elected representatives, it will make no difference whether the council’s de facto leader is elected by 300,000 people, or 21.

      • Can you imagine if the spectre of a mayoral election in Croydon did not exist and Tony Newman and cronies were still in power? Crap decisions, secrecy, fucked-up thinking, back-room deals…..

        Once mayoral possibility came about, Newman knew his days were numbered and he would have to get out (you can’t polish a turd and rolling it in glitter is underwhelming). In some ways the financial collapse of the borough gave Newman the excuse to leave – had it not happened, he’d have to find another (forced or not).

        The inalienable positive of the mayoral process, no matter the outcome, is that it calls out underperforming political chancers like Newman. For me, it’s already done it’s job in Croydon.

        • The mayoral system changes nothing. It is entirely possible that under the directly elected mayor system, another incompetent chancer gets elected. It’s just that they will be elected by 300,000 people, rather than 21.

          Indeed, until the runaway train that is covid came down the tracks towards Newman, there was a very good chance he would have sought, and been handed, the Labour candidacy for mayor (no one else would have dared to oppose him).

          It is all just rearranging the deckchairs on the sinking Titanic. Or, more succinctly, #ABitLessShit.

  5. If Ali and Kerswell really believe that they have turned the Council’s finances around then they are not fit to be in their jobs. To make such a statement to Municipal Journal is misleading. They have only balanced the books due to a massive loan as the article says. They need to give urgent attention to managing within the revenue stream they have but given the massive debt and necessary repayments that is a huge challenge. The wind up of Brick by Brick is a key factor in future financing/loan repayment and given the attempts to sell that on with a “loss” of £100 million I see trouble ahead. Oh and don’t forget the loss of the business and domestic rate/tax uplift as a result of the Westfield cancellation

  6. kpanguama says:

    I am simply baffled that Hazel Simmonds is still in the employ of Croydon Council. What is she still doing there?

  7. JennyK says:

    Katherine Kerswell is hardly the model of transparency or public service. She barely acknowledges that Croydon has residents much less focusing on residents’ needs – evidenced in the lack of any change in the way residents are treated. Her own lack of response to residents’ concerns speaks volumes.

  8. Kerswell says: “We are public bodies – we should be really transparent.”

    Perhaps Kerswell can explain why she refuses to reply to Chris Philp MP’s representations on behalf of residents or numerous residents’ letters addressed to her. Where’s the transparency in that?

    Kerswell is selective about how she communicates with residents and simply appears to be making up the rules as she goes along.

    The silly knee-jerk reaction to employ her is questionable. I would like to know when her 6 month probationary period is up and who will review this 6 month period. I would like to input into that.

    Kerswell needs to to pull her finger out and communicate with residents. If not, it comes across as pomposity and in Croydon that means you are on a ticking clock.

  9. Michelle says:

    I agree with the comment about the housing as they’ve left my autistic son to share with his sister since diagnosis and whoever the gp is they use knows nothing about autism and thinks he knows better than experts who state he cannot/should not be sharing a room. Also they seem to think answering a set of 16 questions in a complaint on tier 1 with send all the paperwork again (which most of it the they lost over the last 10 years to do with his autism) and we’ll review it is an adequate answer and then get told when tier 2 complaint goes in they think they’ve answered everything so won’t respond to it even though legally they have to.

  10. Hazel swain says:

    council lost its way the minute these bunch were elected by god knows who … not me or anyone I know in my part of Croydon

  11. Richard Tate says:

    Shouldn’t Colm and his side kick be held to account for spending public money recklessly?

    Action less words. Blame culture all you like, but Katherine Kerswell tried to silence Croydon employees from speaking out when there were legitimate concerns to be aired.

    As for LGA who did they speak to and why isn’t Katherine or Hamida showing leadership and contacting the employees of Brick by Brick who were forced out: women of colour?

    Isn’t it going to get worse before it gets better for Croydon so under company regulations both Colm and his deputy should face criminal proceedings.

  12. Tibor Mate says:

    “Lost our way”? What a joke. “More transparency needed”. What a joke.

    Who do the council think we are? A bunch of idiots is how they perceive the community they are supposed to care for and listen to and represent.

    They are totally not being transparent they don’t want the public to know how useless they all are.

    If we did know exactly how corrupt they have been a great demand of resignations would be requested ( and not with a cosy handshake payment as those that have resigned received).

    Also crimminal investigation would be demanded.

    Cover-up after cover-up is all we get from our wonderfully honest, tranparent council.

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