When Croydon LBC hit the headlines for its financial woes in the middle of the pandemic, most residents were happy to moan.
But Rowenna Davis – a new mum who had moved to the borough three years before – was not like most people.
Rowenna, who was an English teacher in a Croydon secondary school, said: ‘It was my home. I just wanted to see it get better. In the darkest places you can make the most difference.’
Three years later and Rowenna is now Cllr Davis and Labour chair of the council’s cross-party scrutiny and overview committee.
She had tried to get involved in Croydon politics when she first moved to the area but had been shunned by most of the local Labour party.
‘It was clear to me that this was a club that wasn’t welcoming new members,’ she recalls.
‘It got very cliquey and too many decisions were made behind closed doors. It was a very closed shop. It became easier to get involved.’
In May 2022, Cllr Davis was elected as a councillor and quickly became chair of the committee that was blamed by some for failing to stop Croydon’s financial collapse.
‘Officers didn’t always give scrutiny the information they needed,’ she said.
‘Governance had gone out the window both for members and officers. There was really a toxic culture that was quite authoritarian, of ignoring things rather than confronting them, one of optimism bias.
‘I think it was the people and then the culture that was to blame. If you get the wrong sort of people leading both in terms of members and officers, the fish rots at the head. The leaders of the previous [Labour] administration [led by Tony Newman] needed to go.’
Cllr Davis said scrutiny had not been taken seriously by officers and she believes that has changed under new chief executive Katherine Kerswell.
She said improvements to governance and culture had been helped by a Government-appointed improvement and assurance panel and the extra media attention in the wake of the council’s section 114.
Cllr Davis – a national Labour commentator – said the election of a directly-elected mayor [Jason Perry] had been beneficial by ‘letting the light in’.
‘More than the structural changes, the thing that has been transformative has been increasing the community engagement role in scrutiny,’ she continues.
‘Building in more community representation brings more sunlight. You get more effective questioning. It breaks down the political divide when the community says it.’
Mayor Perry himself agrees that improving governance has been crucial to Croydon’s improvement journey.
‘That’s a big part of our journey of improvement – restoring governance,’ he says.
‘That’s the big concern – how can a local authority get into a position where governance is not a priority.’
Mayor Perry believes governance, scrutiny and audit all failed in Croydon.
He continued: ‘The external auditor wrote to the chief executive [Jo Negrini] and we [as the opposition] didn’t know about it.
‘Auditors were asking for information and that information was not coming. I think the auditors followed process but there’s probably scope for these processes to be quicker so less damage can be done.
‘Auditors maybe need to step in more quickly. I think the Government does need to look at the audit process.’
Asked about what the wider sector can learn from Croydon - despite being on either side of the political divide - both Mayor Perry and Cllr Davis agree that a council’s scrutiny committee should always be chaired by a member of the opposition to bring independence into the process.
Looking to the future, Cllr Davis adds stronger governance and sanctions for councillors that make poor and reckless decisions would be a ‘good place to start’ and would help prevent a repeat of Croydon elsewhere.
After three s114s in three years, Ms Kerswell recently declared the council would not be issuing another, telling staff Croydon was ‘now truly getting hold of what we need to do to overcome our financial legacy’.
Yet the exit strategy drawn up by the council’s improvement and assurance panel recognises there still need to be improvements in governance, culture and leadership, financial stability, service performance, and the capacity and capability to improve.
There remains a long way to go but there is now much more light shining on Croydon.