CROYDON IN CRISIS: The final obstacle to the release of the Penn Report into possible wrongdoing in Croydon has finally been removed, just ahead of an Employment Tribunal hearing this week. By STEVEN DOWNES
Hazel Simmonds, one of five council executive directors who were suspended from duty in February 2021 over their part in the council’s multi-million pound financial collapse, has resigned from her job.
The news was confirmed this evening on The Municipal Journal website.
Neither Katherine Kerswell, the council’s £190,000 per year chief executive officer, nor staff working in the council’s propaganda bunker, responded to Inside Croydon request earlier today for comment on the position.
Simmonds’ departure comes just days before one of her erstwhile colleagues, Guy van Dichele, takes Croydon Council to an Employment Tribunal with allegations of constructive dismissal.
It was November 2018 when long-term Croydon Council staffer Simmonds was promoted to her £150,000 per year role of “executive director of Gateway, strategy and engagement” by the council’s then chief exec, Jo “Negreedy” Negrini.
In the aftermath of Negrini’s own hurried (and very well-rewarded) departure from Fisher’s Folly two years ago and then the issuing of a Section 114 notice in November 2020, effectively admitting that the council could no longer pay its bills, Simmonds was one of five senior members of staff who were either suspended from duty or who quit after a lengthy spell of sick leave.
The other four execs – van Dichele, the “executive director of health, wellbeing and adults”; director of finance Lisa Taylor; “executive director of place” Shifa Mustafa; plus Borough Solicitor Jacqueline Harris-Baker, who never returned to work from sick leave – all left Croydon in 2021, with none receiving any compensation.
But Simmonds had remained on paid leave for 18 months, and in that time also launched a grievance counter-action against the council for race discrimination, victimisation and unlawful reduction in wages.
She also made a separate racism complaint against Kerswell individually, the MJ has reported.
A meeting of the council’s appointments committee last month resolved to take Simmonds’ case through the full disciplinary procedure. That will have seen Simmonds summoned for a hearing of the committee, scheduled to be held in October.
Within days of the committee having taken that decision, last Tuesday, September 6, Simmonds finally submitted her resignation. It is not known whether she may still pursue her legal complaints.
Van Dichele, who took a senior role at Southampton City Council following his departure from Croydon last year, has his Employment Tribunal date fixed for this Thursday, September 15.
That hearing could yet be postponed due to royal mourning, rail strikes or, according to sources, because Kerswell’s council is seeking a postponement. If the hearing does go ahead, it is liable to reveal much about how the council unravelled at senior levels during the covid lockdowns of 2020 and its financial collapse, as well as aspects of Kerswell’s management style which saw her move to suspend van Dichele and his former colleagues.
Simmonds was seen as the final obstacle to Kerswell and the council being able to release the Penn Report, the immediate investigation into possible wrong-doing at the council which was conducted by Local Government Association official Richard Penn, and was submitted to the CEO in January 2021.
It is understood that the Penn Report led directly to the suspension from the Labour Party, and their resignations as councillors, of former council leader Tony Newman and his cabinet member for finance, Simon Hall.
Kerswell has prevented even Croydon’s most senior elected representatives from receiving copies of the Penn Report; councillors who have been invited to view the document have had to do so in an office in Fisher’s Folly while being carefully watched by a council flunky to ensure that no notes were taken, no copies were made nor photographs taken of the report.
Until now, therefore, the public and councillors have had to rely on reports drafted by the council’s auditors to get an objective opinion on the way that senior council staff have been running the borough.
In a separate Report In The Public Interest into the £67million bungled refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, published earlier this year by Grant Thornton, the auditors found that Negrini, Taylor and Harris-Baker, as council monitoring officer, all “failed to ensure council was acting lawfully”.
This was Grant Thornton’s second RIPI into the running of Croydon Council. The first, in October 2020, had found “collective corporate blindness” over the borough’s finances.
When Negrini promoted Simmonds in 2018, she issued an email to all council staff expressing her “delight”.
In the internal council correspondence, Negrini wrote, “Many of you will already know Hazel as she is currently the interim director for district centres and regeneration in Place. She was the unanimous choice of the cross-party appointments’ committee and brings with her a wealth of experience across operational and corporate services, communications, strategy and partnerships.
“This is an exciting time for the council as we embark on new ways of working, changing how we deliver our services. The new directorate will drive this important work and will be crucial in positioning the council for the future, repositioning our relationship with residents and localities, and putting residents at the very heart of we do.”
Within a couple of years, the council was bankrupted and also at the centre of a national scandal over the appalling state many of its tenants were forced to endure in blocks of flats on Regina Road, South Norwood.
Around 500 council staff, mostly on the lowest salary grades, paid for the mismanagement of their bosses with their jobs. Dozens of council services have been axed by the cash-strapped council. Negrini, meanwhile, walked away with a golden handshake of £437,000.
Neither the council press office nor the part-time Mayor, Jason Perry, have not yet issued any statement on the departure of Hazel Simmonds.
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