CROYDON IN CRISIS: Mystery surrounds how a Labour figure with connections to David Evans was recruited to provide political advice when Hamida Ali took charge of Croydon Council – because no one kept any records. Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, reports
Prominent among the serious criticisms of the disastrous way Croydon was run under Jo Negrini and Tony Newman before its financial collapse in November 2020 was the frequent lack of any records or meeting minutes for key decisions.
Government inspectors, management consultants, auditors Grant Thornton and even the Penn Report have all expressed concerns at the multiple examples of this poor practice, sometimes determining how tens of millions of pounds of public cash would be spent.
It almost seemed as if chief exec Negrini and the Labour leader of the council, Newman, were trying to hide something.
But a response to a recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that the failure to keep proper records, even when making senior appointments, did not end with the “clean broom” of Katherine Kerswell arriving as the new CEO and Hamida Ali taking over as council leader.
Because in November 2020, Croydon hired a well-known Blairite figure and associate of Keir Starmer as its “interim head of the leader’s office”, on a mid-ranking civic authority salary of about £39,000 per year.
This happened at the time when hundreds of often low-paid council staff, most of whom had worked all the way through the covid pandemic, were being handed their P45s because Newman, Ali and their mates had crashed the council’s finances.
The head of leader’s office may not have been an altogether new post at Fisher’s Folly. The draft job description, obtained via the FoI, had been knocking around on some exec’s desktop for six years.
The job description makes it clear that this was little to do with making sure the streets are swept, the bins collected on time or that kids in care are kept safe. The head of the leader’s office job was all about covering third-rate politicians’ arses…
“High-level strategic support to the Leader, Mayor and Cabinet – briefings, letters, narratives and strategies to achieve the political priorities.” Our italics.
“Commissioning of public affairs activity to bring about positive change for Croydon, in line with political priorities.” Our italics.
“Oversight of day-to-day running of the leader’s office, providing high-level administrative support.” Or head of paper clips.
It turns out that the person recruited to carry out these onerous responsibilities was Imogen Walker.
Walker’s connections within the top level of the Labour Party, and with Croydon Labour, are virtually masonic.
Walker is a former Labour councillor in south London, having been elected in Lambeth at the time that right-winger Steve Reed, now the MP for Croydon North, was leader at Brixton Town Hall.
In her terms on Lambeth Council, Walker served in a variety of roles, from chair of the Dogs Commission, to cabinet member for children’s services and public protection (dealing with the Shirley Oaks care home abuse scandal), all the way through to deputy leader of the council and in charge of finance.
Walker’s connections go right to the very top of Starmer’s Labour Party.
Her long-time partner is Morgan McSweeney, who was Starmer’s campaign manager when he was bidding to become Labour leader. Today, McSweeney is employed by the party as its campaign director.
By a remarkable coincidence, McSweeney is also a former employee of Croydon-based The Campaign Company, the consultancy founded by David Evans, who in early 2020 was hired by Starmer to become the Labour Party’s General Secretary.
Through an FoI, Croydon Council was asked to outline the process by which the crisis-hit authority came to decide that well-connected Imogen Walker was the right person to head up the leader’s office.
But Croydon Council responded by saying they haven’t got a clue.
Or at least, perhaps conveniently, they don’t have any records of how Walker came to be recruited.
Asked to disclose all documentation relating to the selection process, such as ads or instructions to recruitment agencies, or even communications with the Local Government Association which was advising over the appointment, the council’s FoI response said: “There is no documentation.”
Not as much as a Post-it note from Hamida Ali’s notebook.
“Telephone calls were held with the LGA as part of our candidate identification process,” the council explained, adding, “but there are no records of these calls.”
According to the council’s long-delayed FoI response to Midlands-based solicitor Jules Saunders, “This was an interim appointment where candidates were approached due to urgency.” Croydon had, after all, that month become only the second local authority in England this century to issue a Section 114 notice, effectively admitting it was bankrupt.
“Two candidates were approached, with one candidate available for immediate start.” Which was handy.
The council’s then new leader, Ali, and a senior council director didn’t even bother making a diary note of when they first spoke to Walker about this urgent appointment.
“Interviews were held with the leader of the council, Hamida Ali, and with Gavin Handford, director of policy and partnership. The dates of these have not been recorded.”
Tut, tut… it’s almost as if you’d think Ali and the council felt there was something they had to hide. There is no mention in the council’s FoI response of anything as routine or businesslike as a meeting of the appointments committee to discuss hiring Walker.
Walker lasted little more than six months in the job. It was “interim”, after all.
According to her own description of her work for Croydon, Walker gave “strategic political advice during a period of extensive, rapid and high-profile change including application to [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] for capitalisation direction of £150million.
“Managed key stakeholders and provided communications expertise for high-profile media and political engagement.” That’ll be all those car-crash media interviews that Hamida Ali gave over the council’s collapsed finances, and the scandal of the appalling conditions in council flats in Regina Road.
Katharine Street sources remember Walker’s time with Croydon as somewhat less dynamic and inspiring.
Walker appears to have spent much of her time drafting a comms strategy for the 2022 local elections for the beleaguered Labour-run council.
This was much to the frustration of senior councillors including “Thirsty” Chris Clark – who was supposedly in charge of the Labour group’s communications – and the erstwhile “borough organiser”, Jack Buck.
Walker’s strategy was described by one councillor at the time as “We’re sorry we messed up and we promise we won’t do it again.”
For others, it became known as “The Masochism Strategy.”
In June 2021, with the Town Hall still under Labour control, Walker left the role after the council hired David Courcoux as its permanent head of the leader’s office. Among Courcoux’s previous jobs was time spent as the head of communications at the Greater London Authority for… the Labour Group.
When Tony Newman was in power, he and his cabal, including deputy leader Alison Butler, were fond of splashing public cash on their Labour mates.
There was the £200,000-worth of contracts that somehow found their way to David Evans’ The Campaign Company.
In February 2017, Newman’s council created a whole new, six-figure salaried job – the “director of strategy and partnerships” – for Julian Ellerby, who until that point had spent his career working as director of the London Labour Party for a decade before working for the next 10 years at Lambeth Council, where the leader had been… Steve Reed.
After Sarah Hayward lost her position as the Blairite leader of Camden Council, Newman’s Croydon in 2019 welcomed her with open arms, and a six-figure pay packet, to take charge of the borough’s violence reduction programme – a priority operation that was intended to reduce the appalling levels of knife crime in the borough.
It was a position for which Hayward had very little, if any, experience or qualifications.
Hayward continues to work in a senior position at Fisher’s Folly (doing exactly what is not altogether clear), although little has been heard recently of the council’s once much-vaunted violence reduction network.
For her part, Walker’s personal online biog suggests that she now offers advice on a consultancy basis, as a kind of local government troubleshooter.
And this is at least part of the reason why Sandwell-based blogger Saunders has taken an interest in Croydon matters, and Walker.
Sandwell is a Labour-controlled local authority which has encountered gale-force financial headwinds, and where a relatively inexperienced councillor was suddenly thrust into the role of council leader. So not at all dissimilar to Croydon and Hamida Ali two years ago.
Walker’s LinkedIn bio now states, “From August 2021-present interim head of leader’s office at Sandwell Council, providing strategic advice; managing key relationships with elected members, senior officers, external local and central government partners; monitoring risk and advising on strategic communications…” So not dissimilar to Croydon, either.
Saunders says he has found no evidence of any formal recruitment process being conducted for the Sandwell head of leader’s office role, and he is also suspicious about how much time Walker might be spending in the Midlands.
Walker’s own online bio states that she is based in Lanarkshire.
Indeed, in August, she was elected to the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum, part of the Blairite Labour First organisation’s slate. As their nominee for Scotland.
Not that any of that seems to matter very much if a Labour council somewhere can use some of its precious budget to create a “political strategy” job for one of the friends of friends of David Evans…
Read more: #TheLabourFiles: MP Reed, Evans and the Croydon connection
Read more: #TheLabourFiles: Source of hacked data worked for Evans
Read more: #PennReport wanted police probe into possible misconduct
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