Government panel given extra powers and new commissioners

Council to remain under the supervision of government-appointed panel, which has been given extra statutory powers, until 2025.

Not in charge: Jason Perry

No matter how many times, or in how many different ways, that Jason Perry, Croydon’s piss-poor, part-time Mayor, stamps his feet and says “I’m in charge!”, the reality is that he really is not.

Michael Gove, the Conservative Government’s minister in charge of local government, made that abundantly clear today with a statement to Parliament that doubled down on his decision to extend the statutory intervention powers of his improvement panel.

The panel was first appointed in early 2021, in the immediate aftermath of the council’s financial collapse, and it is now set to be overseeing the running of Croydon for another two years.

Giving Perry the finger: Michael Gove

Gove delivered his statement just before the Commons breaks up for its summer recess. It had been delayed by a couple of weeks, as Gove’s Levelling Up department re-sets itself for the establishment of Oflog, the latest Whitehall quango, which is itself an admission that a decade of Tory “Localism” has caused the collapse of councils across the country and failed millions of people through the decline of public services.

Gove doubled down on the decision, announced four months ago, to put the improvement panel, chaired by Tony McArdle, on “a statutory footing”.

This gives McArdle and his team of unelected commissioners the power to speak at council meetings and to have the final word over almost all significant council business. Whatever impotent Perry might say.

Today’s announcement was also something of “getting the old team back together”, with the news that the improvement panel’s finance expert, Margaret Lee, is being replaced by Brian Roberts. It may yet prove to be significant that Roberts worked as a commissioner alongside McArdle at Northamptonshire County Council – the first local authority this century to be forced to admit its bankruptcy and issue a Section 114 Notice.

Old team back together: Tony McArdle, chair of the improvement panel, and reunited with old colleague Roberts

By the time Roberts and McArdle had finished their work, they had scrapped Northamptonshire as a county council and broken it up into more managable local authorities. Might this be a fate that awaits Croydon?

Croydon, after all, has now issued three S114s, the latest last November, when piss-poor Perry admitted that he would not be able to balance the borough’s books even for the next financial year (2023-2024, the current council business term).

It was Gove who allowed Perry to hike Council Tax by 15per cent in April. Back then, it was said, by Perry, by Jane West, the council’s director of finance, and even acknowledged by McArdle, that to break the bonds of the council’s “toxic debt”, and the massive interest payments on its £1.6billion of loans, there was need for a £540million write-off of debt. Importantly, there was no mention, not even a hint, in Gove’s statement of Perry’s hoped-for write-off.

Gove did try to let his Tory Party colleague down gently.

Today’s move “followed the evidence provided in the improvement and assurance panel’s latest assessment that the council under the leadership of Mayor Perry has made good progress in laying the foundations for its recovery”, Gove smarmed.

But there was a “but”.

“Historic issues continue to be unearthed… and their potential impact on the council and the progress made to date cannot be underestimated, particularly given its continuing precarious financial position. I concluded that the authority was not meeting its Best Value Duty – a requirement set out in the Local Government Act 1999 to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.”

And therefore: “The intervention package proposed in March centred on the council continuing to make the necessary improvements to the satisfaction of the improvement and assurance panel, as they have done to date. The panel would be backed by statutory directions…”, that is, direct orders from Whitehall “… issued to the council requiring them to follow the instructions of the panel if they were not satisfied in the future with the progress being made.”

Gove revealed the possibility of a split at the top of Croydon Council, between “I’m in charge” Perry and Katherine Kerswell, the government’s hand-picked appointee as chief executive – who has effectively been an additional commissioner since she rocked up at Fisher’s Folly at the end of 2020.

Kerswell, it turns out, had made a representation to Gove actually asking for the improvement panel to be given the additional statutory powers. Kerswell, Gove said, “supported the intervention and the proposal to move the existing improvement and assurance panel to a statutory footing”, while requesting some changes to the package.

“The representation…”, from Kerswell, “… also identified finance, housing and transformation as three pressing priorities which the council needs to address and which should be specifically covered by the proposed intervention package.”

No delusions: how the Local Government Chronicle is reporting Gove’s announcement today

Gove has appointed a fifth commissioner to the panel, Pamela Leonce, as housing lead, a recognition of the deep problems within the council’s housing responsibilities, from Regina Road and beyond.

The statutory panel has been appointed until July 20, 2025, “or until such earlier or later time as we determine”.

Gove has until now played fast and loose with the publication of reports from his appointed panel, holding back quarterly reports in 2022, ahead of that year’s local elections. Today, he said that he will expect their next progress report to be delivered before the end of October.

New commissioner: Pamela Leonce

Perry was quick today to grasp at the straw of a single line from Gove’s statement: “I want to be clear that the council will continue to lead their recovery…”

But there was another “but”.

“… but that the intervention package and appointment of the two new panel members will ensure momentum is both maintained and increased with the support and expertise of the panel.” The panel’s powers will only be used as “a last resort”. The fact that the panel exists at all, and has such statutory powers, sort of suggests that the last resort was reached some time ago.

Oh, and guess what: Croydon Council’s tax-payers will be picking up the £250 per day or so costs of each of the members of the panel.

“I am assured this provides value for money given the expertise that is being brought, and the scale of the challenge in councils requiring statutory intervention,” Gove said. Which is nice.

Read more: Gove’s ministerial statement on state of Croydon finances in full
Read more: Council forced to issue 3rd bankruptcy notice in just two years
Read more: Croydon put in special measures: ‘Worst of all possible worlds’
Read more: Two years too late, Tory Government intervenes over council

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9 Responses to Government panel given extra powers and new commissioners

  1. Peter Underwood says:

    In his manifesto Jason said “I will fix the finances” – so this is yet another broken promise. Even his own party doesn’t think is up to the job.

    Regardless of how Perry and his Conservative Councillors might spin it, this move is a clear sign that the Government doesn’t believe that they are capable of sorting out the mess.

    The questions remain, if the Mayor and his cabinet aren’t in charge of Croydon any more why haven’t they stood down and why are we still paying them so much?

  2. David White says:

    Mayor Perry should be using every opportunity to press Michael Gove to write off the £540 milion debt. As this article states, even the Chair of the Government appointed “Improvement Panel” accepts this is essential if the Council is to get back on its feet financially.

    Perry should have insisted on an immediate debt write off when he asked for the 15% Council Tax rise and cuts, which are now having such a devastating effect on Croydon communities.

    Mayor Perry defends the Government’s position on these issues at every turn, and even seems to want to appear as joint author of it.

    • derek thrower says:

      You seem to have a lot of faith in the political processes in Croydon against all evidence of the last decade. Attempting to isolate the case of Croydon without taking into account all the other Councils in dire straits seems an extremely naive perspective and having any faith in part time’s powers of persuasion is simply delusional.

      Perry is now sidelined without any power and should immediately resign as DEMOC if he was a politician of any honour, but we know that is not the case

      As with regard to Gove and his Committee we know that this intellectually bankrupt Regime will be gone by the end of next year and no doubt like all good Tories will leave this huge mess under the next Government’s carpet for them to deal with and as memories fade claim it was the current Government that had caused this disastrous state of affairs.

      • David White says:

        I can assure you, Mr Thrower, that I have no faith at all in Mayor Perry or his powers of persuasion. The purpose of my post was to indicate what demands the Council ought to be making, if it were genuinely sticking up for the people of Croydon.

        You’re right that there are other councils in similarly dire financial straits. Croydon should be making common cause with them.

  3. derekthrower says:

    So Robespierre Gove has decapitated the Tub of Lard and placed his Committee of Safety with the executive role of dictatorship of Croydon Council. What is the point of having any democratic political representation anymore since all decisions will now be taken at the behest of Central Government.

    Huge savings can be made to us all without the allowances paid out to our political representatives for the next three years.

    We could all end up being renamed Govedon Council at this rate..

  4. Liam Johnson says:

    It is an absolute disgrace of the highest order that residents are paying 15% increased tax which is basically paying a portion of interest off the ridiculous debt bill. Why on earth would Jason Perry even consider this as a good idea when the government had not agreed to the debt write off?

    Thanks for making us pay the interest costs Mayor Perry, you’ve really helped the local economy.

  5. This is good because we can add “lame duck” to “part-time” and “piss-poor” when describing our “one-term” Mayor

  6. Sarah Bird says:

    In light of the statement , why are Jason Perry and the cabinet still in their roles? It is high time that the leader councilors and CEO etc were held to account in an open public meeting together with Michael Gove and press. Many of the councilors and cabinet staff have been in situ for years . To paraphrase the late Queen, how is it that they did not foresee the problems ?Let us ,all hear their explanations and plans.

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