Taking the reins of Croydon Council during its worst financial crisis is the challenge its new leader, Hamida Ali, has faced.
Elected councilor in 2014, Ali took office last October at the height of the fall from power, following the controversial departure of her predecessor, Tony Newman.
With over 20 years of experience in equality and diversity practices in the public sector, the former cabinet member will play a pivotal role as the board seeks to close its large budget deficit.
In November last year, Croydon was forced to issue a Section 114 opinion after revealing a Â£ 66million hole in its overall budget, and all but non-essential spending went been suspended.
That advisory was officially completed in March, after the council confirmed it could balance its 2021/22 budget, and Ali insisted the council is able to balance by ensuring residents stay supported while continuing to seek savings opportunities.
She said: âI want to reassure the residents of Croydon that we are working incredibly hard to preserve and protect the important support that the Council has provided and will continue to provide.
âWe will always be on the lookout for every opportunity that generates savings and does not affect the experience of our residents.
âIt won’t always be possible and we are not alone. The councils in other parts of London had to deal with some really difficult things.
âWhether it’s looking at their library services and reducing the number of libraries they provide, or looking at other services, there is some reality regarding the regulation for local government around this. that you can provide with the cash available.
âI’m very attentive to the views I’ve heard from residents about what it’s like to receive services or hear from us, so I want to change that, I want to improve that.
âI want this relationship with our residents to be even better and it will be something that will be at the center of our concerns for the future.
âWe want to create opportunities for our communities in this context of recovery that the nation and the city as a whole will enter and this is something that we want to be a full part of so that residents can unleash their potential.
“We want the council to play our part in making Croydon the best place in London.”
Earlier in the year, the government approved the organization’s request to use capital funds for income purposes as part of efforts to achieve its renewal plan, allowing it to budget in during the year.
Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government Luke Hall wrote to the council to confirm he would authorize a total borrowing of Â£ 120million, with Â£ 70million available in the fiscal year 2020-21.
A member of the council’s local strategic partnership committee, Ali explained that the motivation to run as a leader stems from the need for equality and social justice, factors she describes as the reason she is a union adviser.
She said: âIt reinforced my own sense of public service and the importance that at such a difficult time we would need strong, good and inclusive leadership to help resolve our situation, and I wanted to be a part of it. of this solution.
âI wanted to put myself forward to be a part of it rather than moving away from it, which is a testament to the contribution I wanted to make.
“It has been a very difficult time for the board as a whole, as well as for those of us as advisers as it peaked.”
Ali’s comments come amid the findings of the board’s own auditors, who described a culture of “companies’ collective blindness to both the gravity of the financial situation and the urgency with which action needed to be taken.” .
Posted by Grant Thornton, the public interest report highlighted a number of areas where the local authority had failed to control overspending, and said the Covid-19 pandemic exposed its fragile financial situation, in particular in social services for children and adults.
In October, Croydon Council was forced to apologize for exceeding the budget for child and adult social care by Â£ 39.2million, with an overrun of Â£ 8.7million for child applicants unaccompanied asylum.
As a cabinet member for Communities, Security and Justice, Ali helped vote on budgets that would be associated with poor governance and insufficient challenge on the part of board members.
She said: âI think the listeners were right when you look at their very clear and candid report which has been a real focus for us over the past six months.
âThis brings up two fundamental things: financial resilience – which we didn’t have, which means we were perhaps less able than the rest of the local government to survive this time without being on the brink – and how what we worked with and how we made our decisions.
âI think there were a number of factors that contributed to this and I think all of us in the bedroom, it’s fair to say, have looked long and hard to say ‘what could I have been able to do it differently “, and it could have stopped that from happening.
âIt is important to remember that the report highlighted mistakes made by members and also where the offices made mistakes. Collective corporate blindness doesn’t speak to a single set of actors, it speaks to the entire landscape, which in my opinion is an important point to emphasize.
Last November, faced with the scale of the challenges it faces, Croydon Council released details of its financial turnaround plans, including improvements to governance and leadership practices.
According to the local authority, Croydon’s renewal plan would see it become a financially viable council by 2024, and includes proposals to change the way services are delivered.
âWhen I think of all the reports we have sought to pay attention to and responded to – whether it was the quick government review report or the financial review work that was done internally – there are over 400 recommendations that the renewal plan is looking for. respond, âAli said.
Improvement programs will examine whether advisers are properly equipped to be able to ask questions about board finances.
She said: âI think maybe that’s part of some of these governance challenges for us. Were we asking the right questions, given everything that was going on?
“It is certainly my reflection that as I became increasingly concerned about the financial situation, I often did not ask these questions in public arenas.”
Concerns were also expressed about real estate developer Brick By Brick, with auditors calling on the board to reconsider the financial business case to continue investing in the board-owned company.
Representing Â£ 36million of the local authority’s Â£ 66million budget deficit, a report by the council’s chief financial officer Lisa Taylor said there was a greater risk than expected around The Brick through interest and dividend payments from The Brick.
The board is now believed to be in discussions on a final offer for the company of Manchester-based developer Urban Splash.
Ali explained, âI think what we wanted was to find ways to protect the borough and the services we provide, especially to communities, from the long-term effects of sizable cuts in central government funding.
âWe were trying to find ways to leverage the council’s income and find all kinds of different things, and a few of them were challenged by the report in the public interest.
âWe were challenged by the execution, whether at the level of the activity of the company itself, which was challenged by the strategic review that we commissioned following the public interest report, or whether it is also about our governance of it. .
âThe strategic review we commissioned in September also noted that as a sole shareholder there was not enough strong governance of how Brick by Brick delivered and that, together with perhaps which, on second thought, is considered overly optimistic anticipation. of what could be achieved.
“It was not, I don’t think, the business case, the fundamental business principle of Brick by Brick that contributed, but the execution of it, clearly quite crucial, which was deemed insufficient in the ‘example of Croydon. “
Featured Image Credit Robin Webster via Geograph licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0