CROYDON COMMENTARY: It is important that our cash-strapped local authority does not make cuts for cuts’ sake, and avoids incurring unnecessary costs when there might be other ways to conduct its business.
By Councillor ANDREW PELLING
Some things have changed for the better at the council.
I know that Inside Croydon’s loyal reader will probably find that hard to believe.
But we now have what the general public might describe as a chief finance officer (the third in the space of the last 12 months). He’s new. He goes from one publicly accessible meeting to another to explain in great detail how he is seeking to repair and recover the council’s dire financial position. Such openness is important in delivering change.
Staff and councillors are given a sense of possession of some of the really dreadful cuts that are coming. Many of the cuts will hurt the most needy in our borough. But such engagement by a senior official is frankly a positive transformation to the way the council has been conducting its affairs.
Council protocol restrains me from naming the official concerned. A dim view is taken if we are seen to praise senior council staff too generously, while woe betides us if we dare mention even the slightest criticism of any council official.
But the officer concerned tells it straight when he says, “There is an awful lot to put right here. It will take three to four years to turnaround.”
That will keep Croydon’s new executive Mayor busy, whoever is elected next May.
The finance section has been given back its seniority within the council.
When the council ran into difficulties 18 months ago or so, the official at the time who had the legal responsibility for finances – also sometimes referred to as the Section 151 officer – probably did not possess the breadth of experience to head off the impending crisis.
The finance officer had been placed too low down the council’s executive pecking order, reporting to someone likely without the proper expertise for the oversight involved, and who had been appointed to their job for reasons unrelated to finance.
The new finance officer has previous experience of turning around councils. These include Lambeth, when it was in deep trouble at the beginning of this century.
The budgetary process is also greatly changed in the group of Labour councillors. The leadership has worked its socks off to inform their backbenchers and to listen to their views over five very long sessions and many, many other sessions dedicated to particular service areas.
Before the new leadership came in, asking reasonable questions in private about the budget was regarded as an impertinence that might lead to discipline or dismissal.
I do concede that council staff, the so-called “officers”, are very much in charge at the Town Hall when it comes to most matters. This applies to finances particularly.
This has interesting implications for the role of democracy in a council that has had severe failures.
A popularly elected executive Mayor can claw back the role of being the voters’ voice heard at the council.
The power balance, though, has changed between officers and councillors. Councillors aren’t trusted to do the right thing after the previous wide-ranging financial debacle.
It could be worse.
Unlike Slough, Croydon has not been put under the external control of government-appointed commissioners. We are a step below the shame of commissioners coming in, although we do have informal commissioners in reality, in our externally imposed improvement board. Some on that board are or have been commissioners elsewhere.
Council officials themselves are concerned about what they see as “inappropriate” party political interference in running the council. Officers feel obliged to curtail party political discretion and block a politicians’ input into committee papers that they feel inappropriate. That’s entirely understandable after what happened in Katharine Street under a previous regime.
But this can lead to difficulties. Especially when there are the complications of officials not having the resources to take the minutes of important meetings, or of officials who despatch 444-page reports very late, just before a committee meeting.
It’s entirely dysfunctional.
The pension committee minutes had 29 amendments approved on Friday.
Hundreds of changes to recommendations, with huge financial and governance implications, were necessary from what were in badly delayed reports. These were changes that would previously have been conducted beforehand. The pension committee, of which I am the chair, had to sit for nearly seven hours to conduct the business this way, and still key points were not given enough time for consideration.
Councillors’ requests for more but shorter meetings were denied. They were advised there’s not the resource to run more meetings. We want to take speedy action to protect the huge gains made by recent fund investments. But we’re told there’s not the money to hold meetings to decide this. For small amounts of money and council dysfunction, millions might be lost.
Councillors were forced to make financial and governance decisions about a £1.6billion fund where our advisers also say our governance is at risk of breaking down because of insufficient resource, where there were no significant breaks from the start of the meeting at 10am until it finished at 4.42pm. One committee member had to leave in mid-afternoon, unwell and distressed.
Labour, Conservatives, the independent pensioner representatives on the committee, our independent chair of the pensions board and our external advisers all agree that there needs to be “clear blue water” created urgently between the pension fund and the failing council.
We need to avoid governance failure costing the council money, and we need to avoid making cuts that don’t really need to be made.
- Andrew Pelling, pictured right, has been a Labour councillor for Waddon since 2014. He chairs the council’s pensions committee
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