CROYDON IN CRISIS: Government announcements of special measures yesterday covered four other local authorities, as councils across the country struggle with under-funding and massive debts built up over the last decade
The party line, trotted out in the Town Hall Council debates earlier this month by senior Croydon Conservatives Jason Perry and Jason Cummings, that the dire financial situation in the south London borough was somehow unique, was untrue.
And yesterday’s announcements of “interventions” from the Department for Levelling Up underlined that, as four other councils in addition to Croydon were also mentioned: Liverpool City Council, Sandwell in the Midlands, Thurrock in Essex and Slough, Berkshire.
Like Croydon, Thurrock and Slough have been given special permission to hike their Council Tax above the national 5per cent cap. But unlike Croydon’s Mayor, Jason Perry, the people running Slough and Thurrock did not ask for government permission to increase Council Tax by 15per cent. Residents in Slough and Tory-run Thurrock, which is just as much of a basket-case as Croydon, will be getting a 10per cent Council Tax increase.
That didn’t stop Mark Coxshall, the Conservative leader of Thurrock Council who has managed to run up £1.5billion debts, braying through their recent budget-setting meeting, that his authority has the lowest Council Tax in Essex.
Coxshall, who is married to Thurrock’s Tory MP, Jackie Doyle-Price, doesn’t have much to laugh about today, as the government has installed its own choice of “managing director commissioner” in place of a chief executive to run the council.
Sources in Fisher’s Folly suggest that the Government did not take a similar step in Croydon because, in Katherine Kerswell, the £192,000 per year CEO, “they already have their person on the inside”.
The commissioner at Thurrock – Dave Smith – will have the power to hire and fire officials and “redesign council services to achieve value for money and financial sustainability”. This means more cuts.
Lee Rowley, the local government minister, said Thurrock and Croydon were not complying with their “best value” duties – this, more than two years after the Levelling Up department agreed to a record £120million bail-out loan for cash-strapped Croydon. Rowley recently said that his department is “minded” to grant another £224million in loans to the council, following Croydon’s third Section 114 notice in two years.
Rowley yesterday made a scathing attack on the leadership at Slough council, which has debts of nearly £800million, describing their attitude and failure to grasp the gravity of the problems as “wholly unacceptable”.
He said there needed to be a “fundamental shift in the attitude and behaviour of the council and its leadership”, adding: “The well-publicised failures of Slough have stemmed from a poor culture of checks and balances, as well as inadequate leadership. The council and its leadership must accept this and embrace the need to change.” The government is in the process of appointing new commissioners to run the council.
With the exception of a four-year period when it was under “no overall control”, the council in Berkshire has been Labour-run since 1983.
Croydon, Slough and Thurrock have much in common, having all run up their debts by borrowing from the Government, as they were encouraged to do, for investments in commercial property, solar farms and other businesses.
And also as with Croydon, Thurrock and Slough have also suffered from a lack of scrutiny and oversight, and poor financial management.
Yesterday’s announcement suggested that Rowley and his Whitehall colleagues are looking at breaking up Slough as a unitary authority. After Tory-run Northamptonshire’s financial crash in 2018, that council was broken into smaller, more manageable areas.
Rowley said “things must change” at Slough. “For Slough to remain in its current form there needs to be a fundamental shift in the attitude and behaviour of the council and its leadership.
“The role of commissioners will be of paramount importance and their focus in the coming months will be on a new operating model for the authority.”
As well as appointing Dr Smith to head up Thurrock’s council, Rowley said that commissioners at the Essex authority will also be given further powers, including over strategic decision-making and oversight of audit.
According to The Municipal Journal, the Thurrock commissioners “will gain power over hiring and firing of statutory officers, as well as responsibility for the development and implementation of an ‘improvement and recovery plan’.”
In Croydon, Rowley opted to increase the intervention powers of the existing improvement panel, under chair Tony McArdle.
The improvement panel had already started to flex its interventionalist muscle last week. McArdle and his team were provided with seats and desks at Croydon’s budget-setting meeting, where Labour councillors caved in to threats that, unless that complied with the 15per cent Council Tax hike, the Government would… errr… send in commissioners.
Margaret Lee, a member of Croydon’s improvement panel, has stood down from the commissioner team in Slough.
Read more: Croydon put in special measures: ‘Worst of all possible worlds’
Read more: Two years too late, Tory Government intervenes over council
Read more: Council forced to issue 3rd bankruptcy notice in just two years
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