Kerswell dismisses ‘missing’ £73m as ‘accounting problem’

CROYDON IN CRISIS: Council chief exec relying on advice from veteran lawyer to overcome auditors’ objections to misuse of housing money.
By STEVEN DOWNES

Accounting issues: Katherine Kerswell

Katherine Kerswell, Croydon’s £192,000 per year chief executive, and Hamida Ali, the council leader, can be expected to emphasise the authority coming in £1.8million under-budget this year when the duo address this afternoon’s cabinet meeting and the budget-setting meeting of full council in the Town Hall chamber tonight.

Kerswell described the underspend as “incredible considering where we’ve come from” in an interview with the Local Government Chronicle.

It is also “incredible” because the £1.8million underspend is dwarfed by the £73million from the supposedly ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account which the council’s auditors, Grant Thornton, say has been misappropriated on general spending. As a result, Grant Thornton have refused to sign off on the borough accounts for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021.

Official reports from the council’s finance chief say that if, as seems likely, the £73million has to be refunded to the HRA, then cash-strapped Croydon will need to issue its second Section 114 notice in less than 18 months.

Not that Kerswell appears too fussed by the situation.

“The auditor says this is taxing their technical geeks. It is a really complex accounting problem,” Kerswell told the trade magazine.

The controversy stems from what the LGC describes as “Croydon’s complicated web of housing companies, which it used to circumvent rules related to the treatment of right to buy receipts”. The “complicated web” was woven by Simon Hall, the Labour-run council’s cabinet member for finance, together with Richard Simpson, the then senior finance official. Both Hall and Simpson have since left the council.

Between 2017 and 2019, Croydon disposed of 344 properties on 80-year lease arrangements to its companies Croydon Affordable Tenures and Croydon Affordable Homes. The council provided £79million in loans to these companies and £33million in right to buy receipts, which the companies then used to fully pay their liability to the council.

The £112million was then treated as a capital receipt by the council, which used £38million in its capital programme and the other £73million as spending on adult social services, children’s services and IT.

The auditors have questioned whether the council treated the £73million correctly as a finance lease and should instead have treated it as an operating lease.

Silk: James Goudie QC

“If Grant Thornton rule that the money should be treated an operating lease, we could only have 1/40th of it available to spend every year for the next 40 years, with the rest kept in reserves,” Kerswell told the LGC.

“So that £73million crystalises not as a capital receipt but as a hit on our revenue budget, and we can only use 1/40th each year.”

Kerswell is relying on legal advice from a QC to contradict the ruling of the auditors. James Goudie QC found that the council’s treatment of the money was “not a ruse”, she says.

Kerswell said, “We have clear legal advice that it’s safe to proceed with our budget, by one of the country’s top barristers.

“Although the company structure we set up is uncommon among councils, we are not the only ones to have found proper legal mechanisms to ensure right to buy money is spent and not lost.

“I am so sad it’s come out like this because we’re trying very hard to demonstrate good governance by putting this risk in the public domain.”

The Local Government Chronicle reports that Kerswell “said the council was continuing to try to prove the arrangement could be classed as a finance lease but at the same time was ‘putting in place measures to find that £73million’ if necessary”.

Kerswell said, “As a last resort we could apply for capitalisation loan.” Meaning even more borrowing from the government by the council that had built up debts of £1.5billion.

Kerswell and the council have been able to go ahead with today’s budget-setting meetings, postponed from last Monday, because the government has signed off on the latest £50million tranche of bail-out money, and is “minded to agree” to a further £25million for next year.

Kerswell told the magazine that staff morale was being hit by “local media reports” about the misspent housing revenue account money. By which she presumably means the BBC… More than 600 jobs have been axed at Croydon Council since 2019.

Unmentioned in the Local Government Chronicle’s interview was that, late last year, another local authority was forced to issue a Section 114 notice after a much smaller amount, £15.8million, accumulated over seven years, was discovered to have been incorrectly credited from its Housing Revenue Account and used on general expenditure. As with Croydon, local authority finance experts CIPFA and other external experts were called in to mop up the mess.

The local authority in question is Nottingham City Council.

That’s the same council where for six months in 2020, the interim chief executive was… Katherine Kerswell.

Read more: ‘We’re not teetering on the brink of bankruptcy’ claims Kerswell
Read more: Council admits: We’re on the brink of bankruptcy. Again
Read more: Council faces new storm over ‘missing’ £73m housing money

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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5 Responses to Kerswell dismisses ‘missing’ £73m as ‘accounting problem’

  1. derekthrower says:

    These silly old accounting technical issues that mean you can’t see your income matching up with the massive debts you have incurred and the sleight of hand accounting methods that allowed you to borrow way beyond your means in the first place. Just minor technical issues.

  2. It’s an odd world when Kerswell rejoices about a so called “£1.8 million underspend” which is actually a massive overspend because Croydon has had to borrow millions ( to subsidise the revenue account) to achieve this. That borrowing has to be repaid. It is not a grant and therefore the overall debt of the Council is being increased by the continuing failure to match revenue expenditure to revenue income through the budgetary process.

    Only the foolish can be fooled by her statements.

  3. Lancaster says:

    Capitalisation program, capital expenditure, ring fenced, fixed assets, actuarial valuation, capital receipts, deferred credits, earmarked reserves, levies, revaluation reserves, revenue expenditure funded by capital under statute, operational overspend, operational under spend…

    Language like this, trying to over complicate what is simple is why there is such a big mess; this and showing a budget in credit as a negative figure and an overspend as a credit on balance sheets. Sadly this crap is forced on local government and senior officers love using it and sounding clever.

    The reality as every hard working household knows it is as simple as: Money In, Money Out, Debt, Credit.

    In 1980 UK business tax law ran to 2,500 sides of A4. Today it runs to over 250,000 sides of A4. Politicians and accountants have made life deliberately obtuse.

    • Peter K says:

      Charles Dickens made reference to the consequences of debt.
      This quote comes from his novel David Copperfield, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

      So ignore the spin – It’s misery for Croydon Council Tax payers !

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