No Council Tax hike without seeing the assurance panel reports

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Michael Gove is not only permitting the borough’s Tory Mayor to hike Council Tax without a referendum, he is doing so while withholding reports from his own panel of inspectors. Which suggests the government has something to hide over the council finances, says STEVEN DOWNES

It is now 14 months since the government’s own panel of experts issued one of what were supposed to be regular, quarterly reports into the progress, or otherwise, that Croydon Council was making on its “journey” from basketcase borough to the sun-lit uplands of diligently managed civic services.

It is called the “improvement and assurance panel”.

Yet the Department for Levelling Up-appointed commissioners, led by Tony McArdle, have provided no “assurance” to the people of Croydon since December 2021. Why not?

No one’s saying. We’ve asked DLUHC multiple times when the reports will be released. Every time, we have had the same non-answer: “In due course.” 

McArdle’s panel now includes Margaret Lee (finance lead), Phil Brookes (asset disposals) and Jon Wilson (adult social care).

The panel was parachuted into Croydon soon after the financial storm first broke – or, at least, some at the council began to admit there were multi-million-pound problems – early in 2021. The Secretary of State then was Robert Jenrick, and he sent in the improvement and assurance panel after other officials had conducted what became known as the “rapid review”.

No principles: there’s supposed to be a law to prevent this kind of 15% Council Tax hike

That had, in turn, followed on from the first Report In The Public Interest from auditors Grant Thornton and a grope into Croydon’s commercial misadventures conducted by PwC. All of which ended up being chewed over again in the Penn Report, which was finally released by the council on Friday.

On February 1, 2021, Jenrick wrote a letter to Chris Wood, who had just delivered the rapid review and had his report promptly published. “The report asserts a ‘unanimity of view that these failings are attributable to the poor leadership and poor management of the council over a number of years’ and that fundamental ‘checks and balances appear not to have worked’,” Jenrick said.

And in that letter, Jenrick offered this promise to the people of Croydon: “I owe it to the citizens of Croydon to assure you that, in the event that the improvement and assurance panel recommend that such action is necessary, I will not hesitate to use the powers that I have been given to ensure the stability of the council and that its delivery of essential services are safeguarded.”

What happened to that government promise to the people of Croydon?

Has Jenrick’s successor, Michael Gove, forgotten this responsibility to the public in this borough?

Because in allowing Croydon’s Tory Mayor, Jason Perry, to impose a 15per cent Council Tax increase without the requirement of a referendum, it very much looks as if Gove is reneging on his department’s promise, and punishing the Croydon public for that “poor leadership and poor management” of the council.

Gove might find some justification for such action if his improvement and assurance panel had provided it in their quarterly reports.

But since McArdle and his panel’s last report was drafted in December 2021 (published the following March), the public who are being expected to pay for this shitshow have been denied access to the findings of the not-very-assuring panel.

There should have been at least three reports from this government-appointed panel in that time.

Broken promises: what is Michael Gove hiding in those withheld reports?

At some point early last year, McArdle and DLUHC reached an agreement that the improvement work was ticking along so nicely that there would no longer be any need for quarterly reports from the panel. Once every six months would be satisfactory.

If things were going so sweetly just 12 months ago, what has changed since? Or did McArdle’s panel miss all those gaping holes in the borough’s budget that Mayor Perry keeps going on about?

We’d have a better idea of what the panel thinks if only Gove published those reports. Yet he has refused to do so. What has he got to hide?

We know Gove has seen the reports.

Katherine Kerswell, the council chief exec, has probably got copies, locked away in a filing cabinet in Fisher’s Folly where she kept the Penn Report for so long

So let the public see them.

We know that the chair of the panel, Tony McArdle, is of the view that Croydon needs the government to write off some of its debt.

We know that Mayor Perry is negotiating on that very point – the budget papers reveal that they are asking to be allowed to default on £540million of debts.

The £22million per year to be raised through the punitive Council Tax increase is placed into proper context against that half-a-billion debt write-off and the additional, quarter-a-billion “capitalisation direction”, or government loan, that Perry is seeking.

The budget papers also show that Mayor Perry is planning for a 0per cent Council Tax increase in 2025 – conveniently, just ahead of the next local elections.

Which is further proof that this year’s proposed 15per cent hike is a political stunt, and probably completely unnecessary.

So before Gove and Perry punish the people of Croydon with their 15per cent Council Tax hike, let’s see the assurance panel reports – all of them. Let’s conclude the negotiations with government over debt write-off.

And let’s remember the Conservative government’s promise to the citizens of Croydon.

Then, and only then, can we decide with all the facts before us whether the people of Croydon really do have to suffer Perry’s punitive 15per cent Council Tax hike.

Read more: 10,000 signatures! Now government has to answer our petition

  • Steven Downes is the Editor of Inside Croydon. He is a former business editor at Times Online

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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