Our council reporter, PEARL LEE, discovers that the new borough solicitor was, until last month, the director of private property companies
Croydon has announced a new, permanent appointee to become the council’s senior legal official. They just don’t seem to know when he will be starting in the onerous job. And nor have they been completely open about his private business interests.
In his new job, Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense will undoubtedly be expected to shovel through the muck left behind by the discredited regime of Newman’s numpties.
There is a multi-million-pound fraud investigation into the Fairfield Halls shambles still to resolve, and the Penn Report into possible misconduct by officials and councillors is also expected to finally be released in the coming weeks.
A recurring theme in the two Reports In The Public Interest and other independent reports issued on Croydon Council in the past 18 months has been an apparent casual disregard for the law or for legal advice in key decisions made by the Labour-run council under Tony Newman and then Hamida Ali.
According to the council, Croydon’s monitoring officer, “is expected to uphold high public service standards”, adding, “It is especially important that the monitoring officer demonstrates core public sector values of objectivity, openness and honesty in this key oversight role.”
Yet in issuing their latest press release, which will have required the approval of chief executive Katherine Kerswell, the council has failed to come clean about the recent business activities of 52-year-old Lawrence-Orumwense.
According to Companies House records, until March 16 this year, Eloghosa Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense was a director of three private companies, all based in Dartford, Kent.
Tin House Property Ltd, which was first registered in 2011, trades in the “Buying and selling of own real estate”, “Other letting and operating of own or leased real estate” and as “Real estate agencies”. It appears to be a one-person concern, perhaps run by a relative, the second named director, Dorothy Lawrence-Orumwense, who also holds other property interests.
Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense resigned as a director of Tin House Property on March 16. On March 20, he resigned as a director of another company, Tin House Holdings Ltd (business: “Other letting and operating of own or leased real estate”), a company he and Dorothy had registered in September 2020.
There is no suggestion that there has been anything but legal business activity conducted by the Lawrence-Orumwenses, and the dates of his resignations may well be linked to his being offered the monitoring officer job at Croydon.
Official records show that Lawrence-Orumwense remains a director of a third Dartford-based business, Tin House Gallery Ltd (“Retail sale via mail order houses or via Internet”), which he and Dorothy set-up in 2009, but has been registered as dormant since 2014.
It’s entirely possible that in making their announcement on Friday, the council did not consider the new borough solicitor’s business interests to be relevant to his job. Even in the spirit of the much-referred to “openness and transparency” at Fisher’s Folly under Kerswell.
But if we have learned nothing else in the past seven days, it is that the business interests of, say, the spouse of someone in public service can often be very relevant indeed…
Among Lawrence-Orumwense’s previous jobs as a lawyer was as deputy monitoring officer for Sutton Council. That was around 10 years ago, but those who were involved at the neighbouring authority remember the council’s second-most senior legal official having a part in re-writing Sutton’s standards regime, which the majority Liberal Democrats then used “to go after the Tories” when they questioned… a dodgy council property deal.
In 2009, Lawrence-Orumwense was part of the joint Sutton/NHS team that negotiated the purchase of land to enable access to the newly-built £50million Stanley Park High School. This team ended up wasting £600,000 on an unnecessary legal battle that led to a Compulsory Purchase Order against a religious group, the Trustees of the Benhill Gospel Trust, and delayed the opening of the school. So he’ll probably fit in just fine here in Croydon.
Lawrence-Orumwense will arrive at a time of considerable churn among the senior executives at the council.
One of Lawrence-Orumwense’s predecessors as the borough solicitor, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, was among the council execs who were effectively suspended from duty in February 2021 (Harris-Baker went on prolonged sick leave; she never came back) while their roles in the omnishambles of a council were unravelled.
In February, John Jones, the most recent short-term council monitoring officer, instituted a fraud investigation into how £67million could possibly have been spent on the unfinished and incomplete refurb of the Fairfield Halls. Jones also ruled against Paul Scott and Alison Butler, two of Newman’s clique who brought the council to its knees, for a serious breach of the council’s code of conduct.
But Jones left Croydon at the end of March (after giving Butler and Scott the lamest of slaps on the wrists), and it will be Lawrence-Orumwense’s task to keep the new Mayor and council on the straight and narrow, and somehow oversee a culture change at Fisher’s Folly, where obeying the law has for too long been regarded by some as an optional extra.
The propaganda department at the council was up to its old tricks with its Friday press release about the appointment, making overblown statements riddled with inaccuracies.
The council, they said, “has successfully appointed a permanent director of legal services and monitoring officer as it gears up for local elections and a new Mayoral system”.
They then contradicted themselves in their very next sentence, as Lawrence-Orumwense will not join the council until “later this year”, long after the polling stations have been packed away and the votes been counted.
The council says that Lawrence-Orumwense has “a wealth of experience in local government legal and monitoring roles”.
Until recently he was the No2 legal eagle at Haringey (who presumably were entirely relaxed about their deputy monitoring officer holding private company directorships).
No starting date has been given for Lawrence-Orumwense, so in the meantime the council is bringing in yet another temporary legal official (at least the third since Harris-Baker scrambled off the sinking ship), someone called Andrew Hunkin. It all hardly bodes well for continuity of judgement or management within the department which ought to be providing the conscience of the council.
It will be Hunkin’s task to ensure that the Mayoral and council election campaigns remain within the law. Hint for Hunkin: you might want to check the campaign accounts and spending.
The council says, “This important position is responsible for ensuring all council work is compliant with the law and best practice.” Which would make a nice change.
“This includes, ensuring financial probity, management and internal control as well as oversight of democratic services. The monitoring officer provides advice to council, cabinet and scrutiny and overview committee on governance matters as well as managing investigations into potential breaches by councillors of member’s code of conduct.”
The official announcement dripped with insincerity. The council spin-doctors would have us believe that Lawrence-Orumwense really did say that Croydon is “a vibrant council”.
For her part, Kerswell approved these quotes being distributed on her behalf: “I am delighted to welcome Stephen to Croydon, as well as Andrew who has joined us on an interim basis. Both are strong appointments for the borough as we progress towards financial stability and prepare for our first directly elected mayor.
“I look forward to working together as we continue to strive for openness and accountability to all our residents.”
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