Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on the latest fall-out from the £37m overspend on the arts venue as the borough’s councillors – Tory as well as Labour – appear reluctant to turn their old mates over to the police
The council will hold a special meeting next Thursday to consider its response to the auditors’ Report in the Public Interest about the council’s handling of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment which ended up going £37.5million over budget and was left unfinished and incomplete.
It is the second ECM – extraordinary council meeting – Croydon has been obliged to hold as the result of receiving a RIPI within just 15 months.
Auditors Grant Thornton found several instances of unlawful conduct by senior councillors and council staff, including moves intended to avoid competitive commercial tendering for the management of the works, which was handed under a dodgy licence deal to loss-making in-house house-builders Brick by Brick.
The RIPI identifies several key figures as being responsible for the unlawful actions, including Jo Negrini, the council’s former chief exec, Tony Newman, the ex-leader of the council, Richard Simpson, the council’s former finance chief as well as Shifa Mustafa, the exec director of “Place”, and Alison Butler, who was cabinet member for housing.
Butler remains as a councillor, and as such could be allowed to attend next week’s ECM, as could her husband, Councillor Paul Scott, who was cabinet member for planning during the period investigated under the RIPI, although he escaped mention by the auditors.
As the report ahead of next Thursday’s ECM states, “throughout the project there have been examples of a failure to discharge duties from a small group of senior officers [who] were responsible for reporting to the then Portfolio holders”, meaning Newman, Butler and Simon Hall, the cabinet member for finance.
These councillors, the report states, “were either not briefed by officers and failed to request briefings on the project or did not take effective action in response to concerns raised by the senior officers”.
The auditors’ report highlighted no less than 19 areas of serious concern,
Thursday’s meeting could decide what action the council should take over the blatant and expensive unlawfulness, although Katherine Kerswell, the current CEO, and Hamida Ali, Newman’s one-time protégé and now his successor as council leader, appear reluctant to go for the “nuclear option” of calling in the police or Serious Fraud Office.
Kerswell has had draft versions of the Grant Thornton report for several months, and under the law governing conduct in public office, she will have had an absolute responsibility to call in the police if there was even suspicion of wrong-doing. Instead, the council’s report, which was published yesterday, goes to great, patronising lengths to emphasise the differences between unlawful conduct and illegal behaviour.
It is unlikely, even, that the Conservative opposition councillors will mount a concerted, and effective, call for legal remedies to be sought against Negrini, Newman and his numpties.
By this afternoon, and after their own private briefing on the report from Kerswell, Croydon’s Tories had still to formulate an agreed line on the RIPI, which they had had 48 hours to consider.
Beyond his usual party point-scoring bluster, a statement issued yesterday by Jason Perry, the Tory candidate for Mayor in May, had nothing to offer by way of a plan to sort out the Fairfield Halls fiasco, nor to seek redress for the wrong-doing that has seen a £30million refurbishment on a heritage venue turn into a £67.5million liability for Croydon tax-payers.
“This report exposes some of the many issues apparent at Croydon Council, with a culture of bullying, unlawful activity, conflicts of interest and lack of financial and legal controls,” Perry said. “Croydonians deserve so much better than this.” NSS.
Inside Croydon approached the local Conservative Party to offer Councillor Perry an opportunity to lay-out his plans and vision for what he would do to sort out the situation. We have not received any response.
Perhaps given another week, Perry and his brains trust in the local Tory leadership might come up with something a little more substantial. But then there’s probably more chance of Sue Gray’s full report being published beforehand.
The Extraordinary Council Meeting will take place on Thursday February 3 at 6.30pm, with a live webcast.
Check out the Inside Croydon archive for some of our reports over the past three years which found serious failings with Brick by Brick and the Fairfield Halls refurbishment:
Read more: Negrini and execs ‘failed to ensure council was acting lawfully’
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: Brick by Brick and the 18 documents officers want kept secret
Read more: Kakistocracy: Butler forced into £6m bail-out of Brick by Brick
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period