There was senior level support for Brick by Brick because the administration ‘really wanted’ a transformative change in housing supply to work, Penn was told.
But while it was wholly owned by the council it became more and more an independent development company, with a different ethos and operational culture. It continued to grow with an expanded development programme on 40 more sites with a further 800 homes constructed.
Despite the expansion there was an increasing erosion of support by the council for BxB.
By now the company had 40 employees, all were working on a portfolio of projects that required input from the council to be successful but the council by contrast had not taken on a single extra person to service this workload.
This resulted in criticism of BxB for delays to the housing programme but one interviewee gave an example of how an S106 agreement had sat on someone’s desk at the council for 11 months just waiting to be signed off, which ended up costing the company and therefore the council, more than £800,000.
Interviewee 53 said they felt BxB had been ‘hung out to dry’ as the scapegoat for the failings of others and for the council’s financial problems.
However, interviewee 16, said the kind of investment that the council had made recently made it seem more like a ‘commercial business than a local authority’.
They went on to say that initiatives like Brick by Brick progressed because certain cabinet members were determined they should happen. This was despite a lot of opposition from the community and ward councillors but when they asked questions of the political leadership ‘they were just shut down’.
After the PricewaterhouseCoopers report in to the house building activity of Brick by Brick, interviewee 13’s view was that it had been: ‘pursued without appropriate levels of due diligence, risk management or financial management that would be expected in the safeguards and controls over the use of public money.”
Brick by Brick Chief Executive (Colm Lacey) had direct access to leading cabinet members and probably with the agreement of the council’s CEO (Jo Negrini) instructed others to ‘make happen what they wanted’ so seemingly he got what he wanted: ‘which may not have been in the Council’s tax payers interest’ and has subsequently been shown to have cost the council dear.
Lacey had worked for Croydon council as the Director of Development between 2014-2018 where he says on his Linkedin page that he oversaw ‘notable’ projects like the regeneration of Fairfield Halls.
Previously he worked at Newham where he was the Director of Strategic Regeneration, Planning and Olympic Legacy and had overlapped with Negrini who had been at Newham and also left in that same year to join Croydon in 2014 as Director of Place.
Lacey had no private sector experience when he became the founding Managing Director and Chief Executive of Brick by Brick andin 2016. He remained in that leadership role until 2022, when the decision was made to close down the company and only continue with developments that were already under construction.
He now runs Soft Cities which is a consultancy practice offering services to the design, development and construction industries. He proudly mentions on his Linkedin page that the BxB housing programme was described by the Architects Journal as a ‘truly pioneering piece of pan-borough urban thinking’.
As Brick by Brick evolved it asked for more and more money and it was given this. Those senior officers, who by normal local government operating practices should have raised challenges, queries or even disagreement instead ‘acted as silent bystanders or had been compliant with abnormal practices,’ Penn was told.
This said interviewee 8, in their opinion: “does raise serious concerns in regard to the professional judgement and conduct of the council’s statutory officers.’
One of the causes of this situation is that both the former monitoring officer and former S151 officer were internal appointments and had been use to the ‘Croydon way of working,’ continued the interviewee.
As statutory officers, their ‘legal duty and personal responsibilities required them to intervene to ensure proper safeguards on the expenditure of public money’ but “it appears they did not, and nor did the (former) Chief Executive, Penn was told.
This was also the opinion of interviewee 9, who stated that in his long professional career, ‘nothing like this has been seen before and the Report In the Public Interest conclusion that there had been ‘collective corporate blindness’ is absolutely correct.”