CROYDON IN CRISIS: When the borough’s Labour leadership signed off on the £440,000 payment to the exiting chief executive, they failed to get agreement at full council. By STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon Council’s £440,000 “reward for failure” paid to Jo Negrini on her departure from her job as the local authority’s chief executive in August 2020 may have been unlawful.
Public Finance, the website of CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, today carries details of a similar golden handshake that was made to the erstwhile CEO of Pembrokeshire County Council 14 months ago, and which the watchdog Audit Wales has found was in breach of Section 15(2) of the Local Government Act 2000.
“Negreedy”, as she was known to Croydon’s hard-pressed council staff, walked out of Fisher’s Folly with the council’s finances on the brink of collapse and a £63million hole in its annual budget.
Self-proclaimed as a “regeneration practitioner”, Negrini was the genius behind Brick by Brick, the council’s loss-making house builders. She also devised the “Culture Quarter” which led to the costly Fairfield Halls fiasco, she was in charge when the council’s children’s services was issued with a damning report by Ofsted, and she presided over the council’s handling of the unfulfilled £1.4billion promises of her Aussie mates at Westfield.
Negrini was being paid more than £220,000 per year after being appointed to the CEO job by Labour council leader Tony Newman in 2016. Yet despite her less-than-stellar record, she made sure that she didn’t leave Croydon before sticking nearly half a million quid into her tucker bag. The payment, one of the biggest pay-offs in the history of local government in this country, is thought to have been agreed by the long-discredited Newman and his cabinet member for finance, Simon Hall.
But Audit Wales has found that Pembrokeshire County Council’s decision to make a similar payment, in this case a “mere” £95,000 to its former chief executive, “failed to follow internal policies and procedures and was unlawful”. And there appear to be similarities in the way the payments were pushed through, in Pembrokeshire and in Croydon.
Pembrokeshire’s council leader David Simpson negotiated the settlement with former chief executive Ian Westley in November 2020.
The decision “should have been a non-executive decision requiring full council approval”, the CIPFA website reports.
In Croydon, Negrini’s pay-off was made without any discussion at full council. Indeed, the council tried to keep the amount paid a secret.
Now, while since some powers were devolved to Wales there have been subtle differences in the manner in which laws are applied, the legislation upon which watchdog Audit Wales has relied to reach its decision, Section 15(2) of the Local Government Act 2000, applies equally in England. And Croydon…
Public Finance quotes Adrian Crompton, the auditor general of Audit Wales, who said, “Failure to put in place effective governance arrangements or to comply with the arrangements that have been established can have serious consequences and undermine public trust in an organisation.” Sound familiar?
In Pembrokeshire, Audit Wales found that the council “failed to document in the settlement agreement why Westley’s contract was terminated, and why he was liable to receive payment”.
The authority also “ignored external legal advice on more than one occasion that the council should provide a ‘clear rationale for the reason for termination, and an explanation of how the payment was calculated’.”
In the case of Negrini and Croydon, it was never made explicit publicly whether the CEO was sacked or resigned. The tone of the statement issued by the council on August 27, 2020, certainly suggests that she was given a hefty shove, as well as £440,000, on her way towards the exit door: “Croydon has announced that chief executive Jo Negrini is to leave the council.” No where does it mention that she resigned, and nor was she leaving to take on another job.
Judging from the Audit Wales findings on Pembrokeshire, there is reasonable expectation that Croydon ought to hold documentary records of the circumstances surrounding Negrini’s departure.
Of Pembrokeshire, Audit Wales say, “The council was being advised to comply with a governance principle applicable to every public body, ie. to document the basis on which decisions have been made.”
Croydon’s Freedom of Information managers, already struggling under the weight of requests about our notoriously secretive local authority, and external auditors Grant Thornton had better prepared for at least another welter of questions over the payments made to Negrini.
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