CROYDON IN CRISIS: Have you had difficulties getting through to the council, perhaps to report the latest missed bin collection, or when trying to make a Council Tax payment? According to sources at Fisher’s Folly, you’re just wasting your time. By our Town Hall reporter KEN LEE
There are staff at Croydon’s cash-strapped council who have been working from home during the pandemic for almost two years without having access to their employers’ phone or internet systems.
And according to sources among the workforce. senior management has refused repeated requests to provide the workers with the equipment needed to do their jobs, leaving some staff unable to do as much as 85 per cent of their council duties while being fully salaried.
According to the well-placed source, covid lockdowns have exacerbated existing issues over working practices at Fisher’s Folly, leading to a breakdown in services provided to Croydon residents.
Inside Croydon’s reports of six-month delays in registering a child’s birth, grieving relatives left waiting for the death certificate for a lost loved one and law-abiding residents being served with court orders for unpaid Council Tax because no one at Fisher’s Folly ever answers the phone are, the sources suggest, in part the result of several years of a deliberate shift to “digital-only” dealings with the public.
The sources say that middle managers at the council have endured years of being marginalised and frustrated under chief execs Nathan Elvery, Jo “Negreedy” Negrini and since, as the council leadership – under Labour and the Tories – pursued cost-cutting moves at every opportunity, without necessarily properly considering the consequences of many of the cuts.
They say that the problems were evident before the council’s finances collapsed spectacularly in 2020. They even claim that in the rush to cut services to save money, complete departments have been erased – even though in at least one instance, they were actually making money for the council.
According to one well-placed source, the shift to digital-only at the council has got much worse since the first covid lockdown and the need for staff to work from home.
“There are actually council staff who have been at home since March 2020 who do not have the software or connection to do the work they are contracted to do,” the source said.
“Managers asking for the tools needed for their teams to continue to function have been told ‘No’, even if it means team members have been able to conduct less than 15 per cent of their contracted duties while being fully salaried.”
Another source says that a 2020 decision, which was taken while Negrini was still CEO, saw the entire Environment Response Team axed but that it has ended up costing Croydon Council money.
The small team dealt with urgent call-outs to cleanse graffiti. It was shut down in the efforts to address the £63million budget overspend in 2020-2021. Until that point, the council was spending a relatively modest £385,000 a year removing graffiti. According to Croydon Council’s own website, graffiti “… can cause residents to lose pride in their area, and make a neighbourhood feel unsafe”.
Now, the council says that under its new “streamlined” service, removal of graffiti will fall to the council’s already stretched Highways team. Only “offensive graffiti” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) will be removed
The Environmental Response Team was the responsibility of the council’s director of public realm, Steve Iles, and it is understood that it will have been Iles who recommended the team for redundancy.
But a source within the council has confirmed that the Environment Response Team was a net contributor to the council’s budget, due to income received from the operators of the Croydon Tram network, paying them to keep tram stops and other infrastructure clean of graffiti.
“They paid for themselves, and then some,” the source said. “It was exactly the kind of modern service that a local authority should be operating.
“Only an idiot, or someone desperate to impress to save their own job, would think that shutting down a service that makes money for the council is a good idea.”
It has been the separation of council staff from the Cisco-supplied in-house phone system, caused by a poorly-implemented shift to home working in March 2020 under then-chief executive Negrini, which has seen service levels across a range of council departments plummet to all-time lows.
Our source suggests that Negrini was resistant to allowing staff to “WFH”, even after the government ordered employers to do so to reduce the spread of the deadly virus.
“She sent an email to staff after the government’s diktat saying she expected staff to continue to come and work in Bernard Wetherill House, as the authority was an ‘essential service’,” the source told Inside Croydon on condition of anonymity.
“She was quite indignant, and clearly did not understand the severity of the pandemic, nor caring a jot about her staff).”
Staff were told that they were expected to transfer their council Cisco phones to their home number.
“I can assure you that less than 50 per cent of staff have done this,” our source said.
“That said, even before the pandemic, staff would rarely log-on or answer their phones in-house.”
The source says that there is a culture at the council where simply talking with colleagues or customers was considered “undesirable”. They say that this systemic issue is the major cause of the problems that residents encounter when they try to do something as apparently straightforward as “phoning the council”.
They said, “It means you have no hope actually talking with someone, either as a peer or a customer.
“Those at the counci’s ‘top table’ have no idea, and less connection with the middle and lower staff.”
A major part of this failure to communicate has been Croydon Council leadership’s unwaivering belief in its cost-saving “digital-first” approach to delivering council services. That commitment to the digital approach has remained little altered since Katherine Kerswell was appointed as Negrini’s successor as CEO.
Middle-tier council staff who have spoken to Inside Croydon suggest that “it’s almost like they have an aversion to actually talking or dealing with real people”.
They say that this is demonstrated through the reliance on digital-first – where residents, or what the council laughingly calls its “customers” – are increasingly expected to log complaints or file requests via forms on the council website, emails to often unstaffed email addresses, or by using the badly designed and hugely costly Croydon CrapApp.
“The underlying philosophy behind it is to make it evermore difficult to contact the council,” they say. “What’s not reported can’t exist. They’re just washing their hands of responsibilities.”
Another, now former, council staffer said, “The lurch to digital solutions, when a local authority’s primary mission is with the most-needy in society, is always going to fail.
“A homeless person, or a drug addict, are not going to whip out their iPad and Google the council for help.
“But those in Fisher’s Folly on the big salaries are disconnected from reality and from those that are most in need of help.
“They don’t want technology to improve the service or help the residents, they just want technology to reduce their overheads and staffing commitments. Not that it is ever properly costed.”
Read more: Croydon In Crisis: Council can no longer cope with basic tasks
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’
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