Council confirms Agbabiaka as £127,000 pa highways chief

KEN LEE, our Town Hall reporter, on the latest ins and not-quite-outs on the executive floor at Fisher’s Folly

Heavy lifting: new highways chief Karen Agbabiaka has one of the biggest jobs at the council

Karen Agbabiaka has been confirmed as Croydon Council’s new £127,684 per year director of streets and environment.

The decision was rubber-stamped at a meeting of the council’s appointments committee held in Fisher’s Folly yesterday morning. Given Croydon Council’s recent difficulties in recruiting any staff to key positions, Agbabiaka’s hiring could be something of a coup, if she lives up to the promise of her CV.

Agbabiaka effectively replaces Steve Iles, who took early retirement from the council in August. Agbabiaka has been working as an interim replacement since September, because it has taken chief exec Katherine Kerswell almost six months to complete the recruitment process.

Londoner Agbabiaka has previously led the highways departments at Islington and at Liverpool City councils, and for five years until 2012, she worked at the Olympic Delivery Authority. So she knows what a finished Westfield looks like.

Impressive CV: Karen Agbabiaka

Currently the vice-chair of the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation in London, Agbabiaka is also a non-executive director of Active Travel England.

CIHT describes her as having “over 30 years’ experience in the industry and is renowned for her technical knowledge, strategic direction and implementation of government initiatives and managing complex issues within highly political and pressurised environments that are constantly in the public eye”. Which suggests she’ll be a perfect fit for Croydon.

Agbabiaka has a massive job, even within Croydon’s cash-strapped state. She will oversee an £80million annual budget and have responsibility for more than 450 staff, covering highways, parking, council transport, parks and open spaces, waste, recycling, street cleansing, environmental regulatory services (including licensing, noise pollution, food safety, events and trading standards).

She is, according to the official job description, “the chief engineer for the Highway Authority and leads the statutory responsibility under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, Traffic Management Act 2004 and leads the local flood authority and delivers the duties as required under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010”.

Or, as Kerswell put it in her report to yesterday’s appointments committee: “The director of streets and environment will be the head of profession for resident voice and also be responsible for all matters relating to sustainable communities and promote the council’s corporate competencies and values through day-to-day managerial behaviours.” All clear?

Rubbish contractors: Veolia need to be replaced as the providers of waste collection, street sweeping and recycling services

Already in Agbabiaka’s in-tray is finding a replacement for rubbish contractors Veolia, while dealing with a £10million law suit from previous highway contractors Kier.

And among other tangles Agbabiaka will be expected to straighten out are the proposals to fleece car drivers with Mayor Perry’s plans for more Big Brother-style parking cameras and the move to an apps-only payment system for parking bays.

Also on the agenda at yesterday’s appointments committee, chaired by Mayor Jason Perry, was a recommendation for another six-month extension for someone to be “chief digital officer and director of resident access”.

It is almost two years since Neil Williams quit Croydon. Williams had been one of Jo Negrini’s trophy hires when she was empire-building at the council. The role of chief digital officer was created for Williams, who had a brief within the swanky new “Croydon Digital” department to make the council even more remote from the people it is supposed to serve, shifting evermore functions online.

After Negrini left and the money ran out, Williams was out the door not long after.

Kerswell wants to do away with the chief digital officer tag, and replace it with something much greyer and drab, in her own likeness.

As part of the latest of the series of “reviews” and “restructures” that Kerswell is conducting, all the while nibbling around the edges of the bankrupt borough’s operations, she’s looking at creating a “director of customer experience and technology” to replace  “chief digital officer and director of resident access”.

Yep: much the same job, just a different arrangement of letters on their office door.

“This post will be evaluated through the council’s job evaluation processes prior to being advertised in line with the council’s recruitment procedure,” Kerswell’s report to yesterday’s meeting states. “Upon the appointment to this post the existing post of interim chief digital officer and director of resident access will cease.”

It has taken Kerswell two years to reach this point.

Kerswell has been putting in these six-month “temporary cover” arrangements since November 2021. So this is the fifth time she has had to extend the “temporary” cover.

Temporary arrangement: Opama Khan has been ‘interim’ for two years

All of these delays and extensions are costing cash-strapped Croydon extra cash.

Once a permanent appointment is made, the “Director Grade 3” will be on a salary of £122,803 to £127,684. Or, according to Kerswell’s report “£161,230 to £167,690 including oncosts”. Her report fails to explain how such “oncosts” might be incurred.

But Kerswell’s report does admit that by extending the temporary cover, “this extension will cost £99,400. The interim arrangement is meaning the council is carrying a premium of £31,110”.

It is, Kerswell says, “necessary for good operational and business efficiency that the cover arrangements are extended in the meantime to provide continuity and ensure progress on key projects is not delayed.”

“Key projects”, such as the borough’s vanished bus shelters.

Unmentioned in her report is that the current occupier of the temporary role is Paul Golland, who has been hired as a contractor, first as “head of corporate technology”, then as “chief digital officer etc etc, blah de blah”, since October 2021.

Working to Golland is Opama Khan, the council’s “head of digital”, who was at the centre of the deal with a company that had never built a bus shelter and never sold a roadside ad. But in the spring of 2021, Khan’s negotiations saw all of the council-operated bus shelters ripped out of the borough’s pavements.

Not a single one of Khan’s promised 185 replacement “smart” shelters has ever been delivered.

Last month, Mayor Perry puffed himself up to look important and said the council would be taking legal action against the company that failed to deliver on its smart shelter promises. He’s said nothing about sacking the incompetent council official who devised the deal, nor the chief executive who signed off on it.

If this fifth extension of interim cover really is the final one, though, might it be that, when it comes to interviewing for the “new” job of “director of customer experience and technology”, someone – Golland, Khan, anyone – is deemed not to be up to the task?

Read more: Cost of Kier case against council nearly doubles in four years
Read more: Perry’s latest money-making wheeze? Big Brother parking
Read more: ‘Important’ council flood survey that suffers from missing links

*Updated Nov 10 to amend and clarify the roles of Opama Khan and Paul Golland

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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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