CROYDON IN CRISIS: Eighteen months after an investigation into how the council’s finances collapsed, the report into the affair – which prompted the resignation of the council leader and four execs – remains unpublished. And the council CEO intends keeping the findings secret until after election day. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
The Penn Report, the investigation into wrong-doing at the council that prompted the abrupt resignations as councillors of Tony Newman and sidekick Simon Hall, the council leader and his cabinet member for finance, as well as four of the Town Hall’s top executives, could be about to be published.
But oh so conveniently for many senior figures at the council, the Penn Report won’t be made public until after the local elections are held on May 5.
Katherine Kerswell, the council CEO, has had a copy of the controversial report, drafted by Local Government Association troubleshooter Richard Penn, sitting in her in-tray since February 2021.
But Kerswell has refused all calls to make its findings public until the situation with a fifth exec director, Hazel Simmonds, was resolved.
Back in November 2020, as she surveyed the wreckage of the bankrupt council, Kerswell explained that she was calling in the LGA’s Penn, to get to the bottom of what happened under Newman, Hall and their chief exec, Jo “Negreedy” Negrini. “We know what happened, that’s in the auditors’ Report in the Public Interest,” Kerswell told councillors at a scrutiny committee meeting.
“This independent investigation by the LGA will look at how it happened.
“If the investigation finds that formal questions arise, then that will take place,” Kerswell said.
That final loose end of the various disciplinary prtocesses should occur this Thursday, in a first-floor meeting room in Fisher’s Folly when five people – three councillors, plus Kerswell and Stephen Rowan, the council’s head of democratic services – gather to rubber-stamp a very carefully legalled report which seems likely to be intended to ease Simmonds out of her council job, where she has been on extended gardening leave for the past 14 months.
Simmonds was Croydon’s executive director of localities until she was suspended from duty in February 2021. Unlike the other six-figure-salaried executives who were implicated by the findings of the Penn Report – Lisa Taylor, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, Guy van Dichele and Shifa Mustafa – Simmonds refused to resign.
Instead, she has hung out for a possible pay-off, while going on the legal counter-attack by suing the council for race discrimination, victimisation and unlawful reduction in wages. Simmonds is also pursuing a complaint for racial discrimination against Kerswell herself.
The meeting of the “Appointments (Investigating and Disciplinary) Sub-Committee” had orignally been scheduled for April 6. Senior Katharine Street sources confirmed that the meeting was to resolve the position with Simmonds.
But that meeting was removed from the council calendar without any explanation. “It can only be because they are really afraid of what might leak out,” one source suggested.
“By leaving it all this late, they must be hoping there’s less of a chance of the more damaging details of the Penn Report becoming public before polling day.”
Thursday’s meeting will be considering a set of recommendations that have not been published in advance, while the detail of the sub-committee’s deliberations are also likely to be kept secret from the public.
It was a similar meeting of the appointments sub-committee which in August 2020 approved the £437,000 pay-off to Negrini, the discredited chief executive, in what has emerged as a cynical effort to cover-up some of the many financial scandals at the council.
For their part, when Newman and Hall issued their resignations as councillors in March 2021, they were accompanied by bullish threats of legal action.
Newman claimed that he had “advice from leading counsel” about the Penn Report, of which he had had sight of a draft, and claimed that the report was “factually inaccurate [and] baseless allegations”.
“It is a witchhunt and a shambles,” said Newman, an expert at conducting witchhunts and presiding over shambles.
The former council leader and Hall have been administratively suspended by the Labour Party since. They are the only councillors thought to have been named in the Penn Report.
Nothing publicly has been heard of Newman in the past year, although he was quick to hold a meeting outside a South Norwood pub with the Labour councillor who replaced him in Woodside ward in the by-election caused by his resignation.
The secret report to Thursday’s secretive meeting is likely to have been drafted by Kerswell together with John Jones, who was the council’s interim legal chief until the end of March.
Inside Croydon understands that the three councillors on the sub-committee have only been allowed sight of the Penn Report at a specially arranged appointment at the Town Hall, under supervision of council staff, with no copies being distributed.
The three elected representatives attending on Thursday, where they will be expected to approve the secret report’s recommendations, are Lynne Hale, the deputy leader of the Conservative group on the council, Hamida Ali, the Labour group leader, with Joy Prince as chair.
Newman was Ali’s ward colleague for seven years, and did much to fast-track the young councillors rise to cabinet status at his “ambitious” council.
Prince, the veteran Waddon councillor, meanwhile, has been the chair of the Labour group at the Town Hall since 2018.
So Ali and Prince will both have had ringside seats as the clusterfuck at the council under Newman and Negrini unravelled before their eyes in the years leading up the issuing of the Section 114 notice in November 2020, making Croydon only the second council this century to be forced to declare itself effectively bankrupt.
Neither Ali nor Prince are seeking election on May 5.
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