Croydon Council's outgoing chief executive: I'm proud of our schools - but Nestle is my biggest regret
AFTER six years at the helm of the town hall, Croydon Council chief executive Jon Rouse is standing down at the end of this month. In his final interview, a reflective Mr Rouse tells editor Glenn Ebrey how the departure of Nestlé was his darkest hour, but also explains why he thinks this borough has a bright future...
Why is this the time to leave Croydon?
I certainly didn't select a particular time where I was thinking 'oh, I must go after this length of time' but I got approached last year about the possibility of applying for this job at the Department of Health. I put my name forward and, to my surprise, I ended up being offered it. I wasn't looking to leave Croydon but I also felt that this opportunity at a national level was too good to miss.
Looking back at your time here, what would you say was your greatest achievement?
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I don't think you have personal achievements but I think the biggest achievement for the councils and schools has been the change in educational standards. At the end of the day, the bedrock of Croydon society is going to be to have an educated and skilled population; that's going to determine prosperity or otherwise more than anything else. When I arrived, one of my first meetings was having to go to see Lord Adonis [then education minister], with the leader of the council, to ask for more time, otherwise we were going to face statutory intervention and lose our responsibilities. I'm very grateful that he gave us an extra six months and, from there, we're now in a position where our GCSE results are well above the national average, and over 70 per cent of our schools are good or outstanding. Clearly we've had some academies that have completely transformed schools. When I first arrived I remember every week in the Advertiser there was a story of Selsdon High or one of the other schools of kids running out of control and so on, but we just don't get those stories any more. That's because we've now got disciplined learning environments and young people motivated to learn.
On this subject, the increasing trend is for schools which have a poor or even satisfactory Ofsted to be switched to academy status almost as a matter of course. Is that the right way forward?
I think the approach we've taken in Croydon, and the approach which I support, is that we should have a mixed economy - in other words, that parents should have choice. So if we are going to have academies we need to have a mix of providers; we need faith schools, community schools, we need the whole blend, but the key is that they've all got to be of a good standard. If they're not of a good standard there's no choice at all.
Has anything surprised you about this job?
[Pauses...] No, I don't think anything has particularly surprised me but what I didn't foresee, of course, is that I would do four and a half years of it through the economic doldrums. When I took the job in 2007 the world certainly looked like a very different place indeed. I was geared up to really deliver on what I was told was a set of regeneration projects which were ready to go - the Arena, the Minerva project for St George's Walk and so on - but it turned out that this wasn't really the position at all.
Last year, we had Allders and Nestlé both leaving Croydon in one form or another – two huge Croydon institutions. Do you think, looking back, that anything more could have been done, in either case?
No, I don't think so. I think both, in their own ways, they were going to happen. That isn't to say that we didn't try very hard. In many ways with Allders it was too late. Nestlé, we knew, obviously much earlier, that it was a possibility and I think the offer the council made to Nestlé; we couldn't have gone beyond without breaking the law, and they chose to go. What I would say, is that the Nestlé decision was the thing that hit me hardest in the time of being here. I felt it was a real body blow, because I knew the significance to the town. But you pick yourself up and you dust yourself down… I'm just chuffed to bits that the Westfield-Hammerson deal was struck in time for me to be here to welcome it.
More recently, housing and the level of homelessness has become a big issue. Any regrets about the way this has been handled?
It will continue to be a serious problem for the borough and for other boroughs within London because of the underlying demand. It's a demand-supply imbalance. I think in Croydon what you will see over the next five-seven years as the market recovers is a lot of house-building. Hopefully, that will free up the market to some extent. In terms of dealing with the immediate homelessness problem, the focus has been since we set up a housing supply task force to reduce the number of households in shared bed and breakfast - we've halved it since Christmas, which is again no cause for complacency whatsoever, and I won't be happy, even after I leave, until that figure is zero, but I do feel that we've got a grip.
There's been, from various quarters, some questioning of your salary. How do you feel when people say 'you earn too much'?
It's a really difficult one. The bottom line is that over the years I reduced my salary from when I started which was around £194,000 and I'm leaving at £171,000. They've all been voluntary reductions, which I did three years in a row.
Do you think the salary is a fair figure though?
The difficulty is that you have a salary structure within an organisation and in an organisation as complex as a local authority this size clearly you've got quite a lot of layers and you have to create a certain degree of space between those layers in salary terms. I think it's for others to judge what a fair salary is. At the end of the day, I tried to recognise the times we were in which is why I took voluntary reductions. I don't know what else to say really.
Finally, if there is to be another chief executive, what advice would you give that person?
Just recognise the job for the privilege it is and always be aware that your post only exists to serve the community and serve the administration.