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