It was on November 11, 2020, that Croydon issued a Section114 Notice, effectively admitting they were bankrupt.
Twelve months on, and now the council struggles to fulfil even the most basic of administrative services.
By STEVEN DOWNES
- Resident endures six-week delay to receive her father’s death certificate
- Parents forced to wait nearly six months to register their child’s birth
- House-holders served with court summonses when council fails to answer phones to take Council Tax payments
- £1.6billion pension fund committee has not had any meetings minuted for more than a year
Without a death certificate for her father from the council, Croydon resident Louise Jones is unable to carry out all the direly depressing legal things required when a loved one has died, such as probate and organising their relative’s estate.
For many, such administrative processes are often part of the process of “closure”, allowing them to deal with their grief.
And it’s not as if Louise Jones hasn’t got enough to deal with, as the mother of three children with SEND, special educational needs. She is also being treated for breast cancer. But since the death of her father six weeks ago, Jones has had to chase the registry office at Croydon Council just to be able to get the official paperwork in order.
As is so often the case with bureaucracy, the public is expected to comply with strict rules and time limits over the completion of official forms and documents.
The council website sternly reminds the public what their legal duties are. “Deaths must be registered within five days of the event, unless a coroner is conducting an investigation into the circumstances,” they state.
Because of covid-19, all deaths in Croydon are being registered by telephone. “Certificates will be delayed due to the current processing and postal requirements,” they say. “You can continue to make all the necessary arrangements during this time, as this should not delay the funeral.”
Over the last year, covid has become a handy catch-all excuse for a growing range of shortcomings at an increasingly struggling, cash-strapped council.
“There comes a point when the council is not fit for purpose,” a Katharine Street source said today. “I wonder whether we might have already passed that point. It’s just a desperate situation.”
Last year, less than a month after being hit with a Report In The Public Interest, an auditors’ urgent warning which flagged up multiple instances of maladministration and poor management of its finances, it was on November 11 2020 that Croydon became only the second borough this century to resort to issuing a Section 114 Notice – admitting that they could not balance their budgets and were, effectively, bankrupt.
Nine months of dealing with the coronavirus crisis following a decade of austerity cuts had tipped the Town Hall’s finances over the edge. With the council stiffed to the tune of more than £30million by its own house-building company, Brick by Brick, they were faced with £60million-plus of spending commitments that they could not meet, while also servicing £1.5billion-worth of debt.
As a result, Croydon has been described as “the biggest local authority failure since they invented local authorities”.
Croydon’s immediate response to the S114 Notice was to call for help from central government, and to start slashing away at already much-reduced budgets. By the start of this year, Whitehall commissioners had been installed and a multi-million-pound rescue package agreed – the biggest in British local authority history, and at £120million, about three times bigger than has ever been paid out to even the rottenest of rotten boroughs.
Even before its finances imploded, Croydon had spent much of 2020 cutting front-line jobs: between 400 and 500, many of them employees who had been keeping services going through the pandemic. The budget for the 2021-2022 financial year involved £44.7million of cuts. The 2022-2023 budget will require a further £38.4million cuts.
And despite what Rod Stewart has long maintained, the first cuts won’t be the deepest.
A year ago, Croydon residents were getting agitated over the closure of the council’s graffitti clean-up team. The bulky items collection service was another of the first things to go, in one of those penny-wise, pound-foolish moves that does more to impress the men from the ministry than it does to save any money. Many residents lucky enough to enjoy easy access to open space have spent the past six months grumbling about how the grass isn’t being cut, as if that is a real priority at any time.
These first visible signs of the council’s collapse have been followed by a more insidious round of proposals, such as closing libraries, shutting children’s centres and flogging off bits of parkland, all of which encountered public opposition, none of which, you fear, has gone away permanently.
But this time around, the cuts are going deeper. Much deeper.
The borough’s neighbourhood safety team is about to be reduced to the point of non-existence. After the past week when there have been another two stabbings – on Church Street and on Central Parade, New Addington – it is hard not to make the case for the need for more neighbourhood safety, not less.
And the council is proposing a benefit cut to Council Tax Support which will hit 20,000 households across the borough, including many of the poorest and most vulnerable, some losing as much as £29 per week.
Yet while the big numbers in these reports might be hard for individuals to assimilate, it is in the more mundane, day-to-day services where the council is appearing run-ragged, unable to cope even with the routine.
Which brings us back to the bereaved Louise Jones’s plea for help on social media this week.
“Emailed and no response,” she tweeted. “Phoned and assured it would be done last week, still nothing.
“I’m recovering from cancer and could do without this.” This is Croydon in 2021.
But Jones is far from alone in her problems in contacting the council to get routine administration done. Inside Croydon has been approached by several sets of parents who are concerned because they have not been able to register the birth of their new baby.
“Our daughter was born in August,” one loyal reader said. “We’ve been told we have to wait until February before we can register the birth.”
This, according to others, is typical of the waiting list being run by the registry office.
Others who have tried, and failed, to get in touch with officials say that their efforts even to give money to the council have been ignored, simply because no one at Fisher’s Folly ever bothers to answer the phone.
And this is creating a situation which is needlessly costing the council hundreds of pounds in every case.
Inside Croydon has been approached several times in recent days by residents who say that they have been served a court summons for failure to pay their Council Tax, even though when they rang the number given to them to make the missing payment, no one answers the phone.
As the Katharine Street source said, “When a local authority is incapable of routinely collecting its own Council Tax, something is very wrong indeed.”
One concerned resident, Celine Dunne, says that she is “sick to death of Croydon Council”.
She wrote, “Have you ever tried to ring them? Each time I’ve tried, a recorded message tells me I am number 28… or number 34 in a very long queue. I wait for as long as I can, but I can’t hang on forever, as I have to work.”
But if anyone is unable to get through to the council’s payment line, they run a serious risk of having their case placed automatically into the hands of an enforcement agency, who can turn up on your doorstep demanding immediate payment of hundreds of pounds, or the impoundment of your possessions. The poor Council Tax-payer, despite all their best efforts, is usually saddled with the additional enforcement costs, too.
“It is unfair bullying and ruthless scare tactics,” according to one victim.
Another resident has found themselves in a similar situation when trying to handle the Council Tax payments for their elderly mother, who has dementia.
“She is being threatened with court action for non-payment of Council Tax,” they said. “I’m at my wits’ end, and however long I hang on the phone, I cannot get through to the Council Tax department.”
The matter has been raised with the council’s leadership, who were asked why the Town Hall does not employ more people simply to staff its phone lines and payment lines, to better collect outstanding Council Tax. They provided a stock answer, “It all costs money.”
Yet research by Inside Croydon has found that a shortage of staff really ought not be a problem in Fisher’s Folly, especially not on the executive floors occupied by the £192,474 per year CEO Katherine Kerswell and her “executive leadership team”.
When Kerswell took over at the council in September 2020, she was one of six executive director positions at the council. Today, after a sometimes fraught reorganisation and despite cut-backs everywhere else, there are eight such positions, all of whom are on salaries of around £150,000.
And according to an official council response to a Freedom of Information request from Inside Croydon, by April 2021, under Kerswell, Croydon Council had more staff on its books than had been the case in April 2019, before covid and the financial collapse – 3,363 to 3,293 two years earlier.
Still, the day-to-day, basic functions of a fit-for-purpose local authority are not being performed. Elected councillors relate how their council questions are frequently answered months late, and often too late for appropriate action.
Given the serious repercussions arising from the Grant Thornton Report In The Public Interest in October 2020, with its wide-ranging criticisms of the council failing to keep a check on its finances, the idea that a Town Hall committee administering a £1.6billion fund has no proper records of its discussions or decisions for the whole of 2021 really ought to ring a couple of alarm bells.
Yet that is the case with Croydon Council’s pensions committee, which has not had its meetings minuted by a council official since December 2020. Similar issues are affecting the work of other parts of the council, which is supposed to scrutinise the work of employees, including the execs.
Inside Croydon is aware that members of the pensions committee, including councillors and independent appointees, having raised this serious matter with council directors, but have seen no action to remedy the situation.
But hey, why worry? It’s only millions of pounds of public money after all…
Read more: Town Hall’s untrue claims about cuts to Council Tax Support
Read more: Further £38.4m to be sliced from next year’s council budget
Read more: Labour wants to cut voluntary sector funding by a ‘full Negrini’
Read more: ‘Mistakes will be made’ warn staff after latest round of cuts
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