Croydon Council’s external auditors, Grant Thornton, have recently published a damning report into financial mismanagement by the local Labour party. The report is far reaching and the consequences of how badly things have gone wrong will be felt by Croydon’s residents for many years to come.
You can read the full report here.
One of the recurring themes throughout the report is on the lack of challenge as the Council’s finances slowly unravelled. Whilst it is correct that ‘overall’ there was not enough challenge, what questioning there was of Labour’s plan came only from the Conservative opposition. No Labour cabinet members questioned the deliverability of the plans or their failure to achieve budgets in six years of administration. Not once. That includes their new leader, Cllr Hamida Ali.
So, if questions were asked and warnings put forward, why was nothing done? Why did they not listen?
Let me run through an example meeting I attended on the 24 February 2020. Note that this meeting took place prior to Covid impacting on the council.
This was a meeting of Croydon’s Cabinet where the next years budget and the in-year financial position were to be discussed.
You can find a full recording of that meeting here.
Opportunities to ask questions at Cabinet meetings are very limited for opposition Councillors and we were not allowed to ask follow up questions so it was very much one bite at the cherry each time!
The Labour leadership presented their budget plans for the following year and an update on the in-year position and after they did so I was able to ask a question. You can listen to my questioning 1 hour and 21 minutes into the meeting (the timer in the bottom right will show -1:28:47 left).
This exchange is indicative of how Croydon Labour respond to legitimate and reasoned challenge.
I ask two questions. The first on the sudden improvement in the in-year overspend position and how it was achieved and the second on borrowing levels and the level of risk being taken by the council. These were both subsequently highlighted as major issues by the auditors.
The response from Councillor Newman is outrageous.
He describes being questioned on these issues as immature and not well-informed and then accuses me of scaremongering. It is worth repeating that the external auditors have subsequently confirmed that I was absolutely right to be asking those questions. This is just one example of six years of warnings being met by the belittling of the questioner whilst Cabinet members like Cllr Ali sat in silence.
The opportunities to deal with Croydon’s financial problems were there. Croydon Labour were warned.
They just didn’t listen.