CROYDON IN CRISIS: The former Town Hall leader and CEO have been criticised for allowing ‘a bullying culture’ at the council. ‘They were vicious in the way they marginalised anyone that spoke against them’.
STEVEN DOWNES reports
Croydon Council has a “fearful” culture where bullying behaviour goes unchallenged, according to staff responses in the survey carried out at the bankrupt council in the past few weeks.
Some staff expressed “anger and vitriol towards senior management”.
The staff engagement exercise also involved focus groups, with the findings reported to the council cabinet this week.
The most recent scrutiny meeting was told of the bullying culture at the council, and long-standing staff members have told Inside Croydon that, in their opinion, some of that came as a result of the approach of Jo Negrini, the chief executive until very recently, and Tony Newman, the now-former council leader who promoted her into the top job.
“They were vicious in the way they marginalised anyone that spoke against them, including, in Newman’s case, their fellow councillors,” the staff member said.
“I saw many competent and fantastic staff walk away from the council due to bullying. Evidence was always hard to find because of the attitude of senior directors and managers who were able to hide the facts.
“Even when people were brought from outside to investigate racism, no black staff would give evidence, because they knew it was all a waste of time and nothing would come out of it. Women, especially black women, and low-paid staff were the victims and they are still the victims of this current crisis.
“Labour leader Tony Newman was simply appalling, incompetent and tribal. He tolerated those who kissed his arse and were sycophantic. But anyone who saw what was going on and was willing to expose it were harassed, intimidated and sacked, including trades union officers. Yes, in a Labour-controlled council.”
Such serious allegations appear to be backed up to some degree in the staff survey, which was initiated by Negrini’s successor, interim CEO Katherine Kerswell.
In the survey, staff complained of “fragmented engagement and communication from senior management with often low visibility”, as well as a “lack of accountability and taking responsibility”.
The report to cabinet states: “A very strong message from the council’s staff is the need to change the culture from one which is seen by many as a fearful culture with staff unable to speak up, to challenge bullying or other inappropriate behaviour, with less hierarchical silo-ed behaviour, better communication, more openness and trust.”
It said there was “strong, palpable anger and vitriol” towards senior management and noted that an investigation (another one) into senior management actions between April 2017 and September 2020, commissioned by the council, would “offer more insight and hopefully help build a more detailed understanding of how the council has arrived in this situation”. The period that the investigation is supposed to cover is significant: Negrini was appointed CEO in June 2016, and left in August.
One participant in the council focus group said that the current chief executive, Katheerine Kerswell, “needs to listen to the staff on the ground, we often tell the true story of the service, the positive and the negatives, [as] it is the only way of really knowing what is happening”.
Given some of the examples of misconduct by Negrini appointees that Inside Croydon has uncovered and reported, that should not be any surprise.
In 2017, a pair of council whistleblowers approached Inside Croydon with evidence that a senior director at the council was paying family friends £787 per day for a job for which they were unqualified. Their original complaints had been dismissed and covered-up.
Once this website reported the story, councillors were gagged from following up the report, Negrini threatened legal action against this website, and the council whistleblowers were ultimately hounded out of their jobs.
According to a report in the Local Government Chronicle, the latest staff survey was wide-ranging and involved nearly one-third of all the council’s staff.
Of the 1,003 respondents, 74 per cent offered suggestions of savings that could be implemented immediately to achieve a balanced budget this year.
Just over one-fifth said they were not proud to work for the council, while a further 21 per cent were “ambivalent”, the report said.