There was clearly something amiss at the heart of Croydon council’s culture for some time with staff describing being ‘fearful’ and unable to speak up, to challenge ‘bullying or other inappropriate behaviour’.
Labour politicians were also accused of a ‘culture of bullying’ and ‘playing Monopoly’ with the borough’s money by the Conservative opposition during a round of council meetings over the last month.
A staff engagement exercise initiated by Jo Negrini’s successor, interim CEO Katherine Kerswell highlighted staffs ‘anger and vitriol towards senior management’ .
Council leader Hamida Ali has come under intense pressure over Labour’s continued support for the former leadership team who oversaw the financial mess. Former leader Tony Newman, ex cabinet finance chief Simon Hall and Alison Butler, who was deputy leader and held the housing brief, are now sitting on the backbenches. Opposition leader Cllr Jason Perry questioned: “How can they be allowed to sit as councillors for another 18 months?”
An independent investigation in to who was responsible for many of the council’s woes including risky property speculation has been launched by the cross party London Government Association. It could result in formal disciplinary action against councillors and senior council executives but the LGA has no powers to pursue the exodus of highly paid senior officers including Jo Negrini who have already left the sinking ship.
Councillors have been told they need to make wholesale change to the: culture, decision making process, risk assessment and the way they communicate with officers, challenge decisions and formulate strategies and plans.
Some Labour councillors have tried to shift the blame on to officers claiming they provided ‘poor information’ on Brick by Brick and the failed Croydon Park Hotel investment.
Shadow spokesman for finance Jason Cummings said he raised several times concerns which were subsequently published in Grant Thornton’s Public Interest report only to be told by the former leader Tony Newman that he was ‘immature, ill informed’ and ‘scare mongering’. He said this was typical of the ‘bullying attitude’ of Newman’s leadership.
Current cabinet member for finance Cllr Callton Young said councillors had been ‘found wanting’ and that there was ‘collective responsibility’ for the mess. He recommended councillors sign up for free financial masterclasses provided by the Local Government Association.
According to his LinkedIn profile Cllr Hall is a chartered accountant by profession and Cllr Butler has worked in local government for most of her life serving as an aid to the late Croydon north MP Malcolm Wickes while Cllr Newman’s career highlight is as a keyboard player with a band.
The council’s scrutiny oversight was highly criticised by the auditors .
Cllr Sean Fitzsimmons lead on scrutiny refuted accusations of bullying from Conservatives. He also defended the decision of his scrutiny committee, not to oppose the purchase of Park Hotel which subsequently went in to administration. It was called in by scrutiny but not referred to full council after a four to one vote. He claims he was ‘too trusting’ off officers advice.
There was also further criticism of governance of the Brick by Brick arrangement. No loan payments or dividends have been paid by from Brick by Brick. Conservative Conservative Cllr Lynne Hail said this was contrary to what councillors were told previously by former cabinet lead for finance Simon Hall. Cllr Hall said he wanted minuted that he was provided with this information by council officers and Brick by Brick.
Cllr Ali, accepted she was part of the cabinet that made the poor financial choices and took her share of responsibility but reminded the council that the auditors had said it was a ‘corporate challenge’. She added that when she had first read the Public Interest Report there was, ’shame’ and she was ‘deeply sorry’ that the council was in this position and determined to make it right.’
Cllr Ali said councillors had all heard concerns from residents, staff and partner organisations, about the council’s situation and she offered reassurance: “We will continue to be there for them,” in delivering vital services and “rebuilding trust”