- Nearly half the questions lodged by elected councillors have not had an answer from council officials within two months
- Part-time Mayor’s office only staffs phones for 4 hours each weekday
- Average wait time for phone calls to council contact centre was 5 minutes
Jason Perry, the £81,000 per year elected Mayor of Croydon, is fond of claiming that he is “listening” to residents.
But figures obtained by Inside Croydon prove that many residents have been left hanging on their phones, unable to get through to Perry’s council to speak to any officials.
Even elected councillors are being snubbed by a council enquiries system that is so slow that half their formal, written questions in Perry’s first months in office have not had any answer at all.
Inside Croydon has reported before how the borough’s part-time Mayor – Perry has refused to resign as a director of his family business, despite the full-time demands of the mayoralty – has his office staffed for just two hours each weekday morning and two hours in the afternoons – a total of just 20 hours each week.
But now we have obtained other official Town Hall statistics which show that executive efforts to distance the local authority from the people they are supposed to serve have made the council more remote than at any time in its history – and after the drastic cuts of the past two years, Croydon has too few staff to be able to provide even the most basic services of a properly functioning council.
According to figures obtained from the office of Katherine Kerswell, the council’s elusive £192,474 per year chief executive, in the first two months of Perry’s mayoralty the borough’s 70 councillors submitted 1,702 written questions.
The standard of these enquiries may vary, but these are the sort of questions which elected councillors are supposed to ask to keep hold the council’s professional staff to account on a broad range of the authority’s functions and services.
But according to Kerswell’s office, of those 1,702 questions submitted by July 9 this year, 805 of them were still “open” – that is, unresolved or answered. That represents 47per cent of the questions, nearly half, unanswered.
Of those, 418 of the questions were overdue an answer under the rules for handling councillor enquiries laid down by law: almost one-quarter.
According to one Katharine Street source, “This has been going on for years. Often, I would submit a councillor’s question on a time-sensitive issue, and I would be left waiting for an answer for so long that the response I eventually received would be months out of date by the time the council officers had got round to drafting it.
“It makes a mockery of the system, and makes council executives almost unaccountable – which is exactly how Croydon got into the mess it now finds itself in in the first place.”
Members of the public submitting Freedom of Information requests to Croydon Council, where the authority has a legal duty to furnish a response within 20 working days, tend to encounter even greater delays in seeking answers to their questions.
Often, FoI is the last resort for frustrated Council Tax-payers, after their attempts to get through on the Town Hall’s phone lines have been utterly thwarted.
Matters in that respect might be about to improve, with what council insiders describe as a “new and improved telephone system” having been installed and made operational from August 8.
The new system highlights quite how rotten the old council phone system had been allowed to become under the misrule of ex-CEO Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, who quit Fisher’s Folly two years ago this week with a pay-off of £437,000 of public cash.
Under Negrini and her predecessor, Nathan Elvery, council policy had been to make its staff as remote as possible from the public they are supposed to serve, steering as much business online as possible. Having a phone system which senior council staff admit was “outdated” assisted that cause, by making it evermore difficult for the public to ever actually speak to council staff.
According to a report circulated to councillors last week, under the old phone system the average waiting time for incoming calls to the council had reached five minutes – although this figure understates the true position since it includes many contacts where callers hang up on discovering that they face a potentially long wait for any response. Or those who might have been brusquely cut off.
On August 9, the first full day of the new telephony system, average call waiting time was down to 59seconds.
The council’s contact centre in Fisher’s Folly saw an increase of 23per cent in the number of calls taken compared to the Tuesday of the previous working week – 1,059 up from 809.
“Colleagues in the contact centre have reported the new system as ‘faster – quicker to connect people to the right number’, allowing them to ‘take more calls and help more people’,” according to the memo circulated to councillors.
“After years of using an outdated system, it is brilliant to have our new telephony service in place and already delivering,” Paul Golland, the council’s interim Chief Digital Officer, said in a message to staff.
Now all that remains for part-time Perry and the elusive Kerswell to do is to create more posts in that contact centre so that they extend its opening hours from the less-than business-like 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and so give the public more opportunities to call outside their own hours of work, in the mornings, evenings and on Saturdays.
But that would require them to answer some questions and exhibit more accountability. And to really listen.
Read more: Newman and Negrini’s pay-off: no papers, no notes, no reasons
Read more: CEO Negrini’s long campaign to shut down Inside Croydon
Read more: Council paid £25,000 for legal threats against Inside Croydon
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