Jo Negrini’s meteoric rise to being paid more than the Prime Minster began in a Sydney suburb.
According to Negrini’s LinkedIn account she left Australia gaining a batchelor in town planning after four years studying at the University of New South Wales in 1984.
In an interview with The Australian Financial Review she spoke about her humble beginnings growing up in a concrete chalet style cottage built by her dad in Yagoona and how ‘community’ was at the heart of her regeneration philosophy.
Her first job in England, according to her Linkedin page was in 2007 as a director of Regeneration in Lambeth, where she remained for three years before leaving to become Director of Strategic Regeneration, Planning and Olympic Legacy at Newham staying for four years.
She arrived in Croydon in 2014 as Executive Director of Place and became interim chief executive in April 2016 – two months later she was given the job full time and became the highest paid local authority chief executive in the country on a salary of over £200,000.
In 2017, now ensconced in the role of CEO she became a fellow of the esteemed Royal Institute of British Architects after demonstrating to a panel of her peers that she had made a ‘real contribution to architecture and the community’.
The ambitious CEO had wholeheartedly signed up to Croydon Labour’s vision to implement ‘seismic’ changes to transform Croydon in to a ‘cool’ place to live and work.
She put regeneration at the heart of her council empire and recruited colleagues she had worked elsewhere with in Lambeth and Newham to join her in mission to transform the borough – on equally high wages.
The accolades started to come in thick and fast. By 2018 she won the New Londoner of the Year award for her contribution to quality of environment, life and culture in the city.
Said the award panel: ‘Croydon has been reinventing itself for years, but under Jo’s leadership the pace has quickened with the borough well on its way to becoming London’s biggest growth centre.’
In that same year she returned to her home city of Sydney to deliver a key note to Australian Urban Design Awards, titled ‘Design is always political’.
She regularly attended the MIPIM property event in Cannes, France, a four-day real estate exhibition, conference and networking event for international property professionals, taking along fellow directors to one of the junkets at a cost to the taxpayer of £14,488.
They manned a beachfront stall promoting Croydon’s ‘Urban Edge’ in a bid to lure investors to the borough.
However, a lot of these ‘good news stories’ lacked substance and Croydon’s transformation was talked up but very little was actually delivered – Westfield being a prime example of this.
One interviewee said the council seemed to regard essential core services peripheral to its core task of action as a developer. It relished a role as a developer focused on regeneration and lots of ‘shiny new things’ in the town centre – although many of these initiatives are actually only half finished.
Back at Bernard Weatherill House her management style repeatedly came under question. One of those interviewed over the former CEO’s behaviour said that she had ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ and it was not the best tactic to question or challenge her on one of her bad days.
Views were expressed by another that Negrini, had a distinct ‘command and control style of management’ and was good in a crisis but she did not like ‘challenge or questioning from anyone’. She had assembled a team of weak directors who would ‘toe the line.’
They said there were accounts from junior staff through webinars about the CEOs ‘inappropriate conduct, such as shouting and swearing.’
The opinion expressed was that there seemed to be a ‘reluctance by some senior officers to publicly or privately challenge or disagree’ with what the council leader Newman and Negrini ‘wanted to happen’.
Another member of staff said the chief executive dominated the organisational culture and was ‘very dictatorial’.
They believed Negrini had an ‘inner core’ and if an officer was in that ‘gang’ then they were supported and if not then they could be ‘isolated and ignored’.
They said this inner core in effect mirrored the so called ‘inner circle’ of the cabinet which was likened to a ‘cabal’.
A Labour councillor said their main concern in March 2020 was not the council’s finances but COVID. Croydon was really badly affected with more than 500 deaths early on.
Newman told one of those interviewed by Penn that in his opinion, Negrini had become ‘obsessed’ with
her role as Gold Command – the overall control of their organisation’s resources during the pandemic- in the summer of 2020 to the ‘exclusion of all else’.
Negrini’s strategy was to assemble a senior team who were ‘compliant and silent’ and that she had picked a third tier finance officer to be the S151 officer (Chief Financial Officer).
When they left, their replacement in the view of one interviewee had been ‘pressured, bullied and leaned on’ by Negrini and cabinet members to mask the facts and only ‘now has she been able to do the right thing and issue a S114 notice (bankruptcy) that should have been issued months ago.”
A supporter of Negrini said it was ‘easy’ for elected members now to ‘blame’ her for things that have gone wrong but the reality was ‘that influential cabinet members refused to face facts and take the necessary action to address the council’s deteriorating financial situation.’
Negrini walked away with a £437,000 pay off and pension contributions from the borough she helped to bankrupt and re-emerged with a lucrative ‘consultancy’ with one of the firms she used to hire when running the council.
She is now employed by Arup, famed for building the Sydney Opera House, the Shard and the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics.
In Croydon, she had asked Arup to develop a tailor-made, web-based Programme Delivery Dashboard’ which was meant to ‘pioneer how major urban regeneration schemes are planned and delivered in future.”
She had been working as an independent consultant for them since leaving Croydon in November 2020 and was last year appointed as director at Arup overseeing the inclusion and equity cities regeneration brief.
In the next week, the council is being asked to rubber stamp Mayor Jason Perry’s proposal to hike residents council tax by 15 per cent to raise £20million or cut frontline services.
Meanwhile Negrini will be enjoying another junket at the MIPIM property event in Cannes and will be part of a debate on London: Resilience and Reinvention and will speak about Financing London’s decarbonisation.
She hasn’t commented on the Penn report or her time at Croydon. Currently, the only action she faces is over the £437,000 golden handshake the council paid to her.
Penn is recommending the council’s Appointments and Disciplinary Committee look at whether her ‘actions and inactions’ while in her role as Chief Executive constituted a repudiatory breach of her contract and so breaches the settlement.