CROYDON COMMENTARY: His frontbench reshuffle at the Town Hall, with one obvious sacking, no promotions for his younger councillors, and an appointment which will displease Crystal Palace supporters, provides insight into the thinking of Conservative group leader Mike Fisher with two years until the next council elections, says ANDREW PELLING
Mike Fisher, the Croydon Council leader, has not thrown anyone out of his cabinet of leading councillors at the Town Hall in his latest reshuffle, though there is one significant casualty.
Among the various jobs titles for members of the Conservative group that controls Croydon Council, there is no longer anyone specifically looking after “Culture”, “Sport”, “the Big Society” nor “Sustainability”. As our council has done its best to kill-off all culture in the borough, that first deletion is perhaps to be expected.
But the move of Councillor Sara Bashford – dubbed “Book Token” by Inside Croydon and latterly by Private Eye because of her disastrous handling of the borough’s libraries - can only be characterised as a demotion.
Probably the only thing that saved her from losing her generous £45,000 per year in cabinet member allowances as she is stripped of responsibilities for culture, sport and libraries could be the influence of her erstwhile work colleague, now Mayor of Croydon, Eddy Arram, and her boss in the Croydon Central MP’s constituency office, Gavin Barwell.
The strongest hint that Bashford’s reduction in responsibilities was really a sacking was found in the pages of the Redhill Sadvertiser, in the so-called “Insider” column. Often penned by veteran Town Hall reporter Ian Austen, the obsequiousness of his barely disguised tribute to Bashford, with incredible claims such as “she seems to have won the respect if not the love of the unions”, has all the hallmarks of a piece written to help ease Bashford’s pain at her relegation. It must be very small consolation.
In the past two years, Bashford has presided over two mismanaged consultations on libraries, caused national outcry at the closure of the David Lean Cinema and axed the annual music festival, all for minimal cash savings.
Indeed, her latest wheeze, a tendering process to privatise the libraries, could cost Croydon £250,000, while a mooted legal challenge from Lambeth over the breaking of the Upper Norwood Joint Library agreement may prove much more expensive.
With two years to go to the next Town Hall elections, this was Fisher’s last real chance to get his team organised for 2014 and bring in fresh blood and to cut out any underperformers. Perhaps Fisher does not believe that his team’s performance can be improved.
Bashford saved face by clinging on to “customer services” (that’s supervising matters such as Freedom of Information requests) and she can now use her rather challenged inter-personal skills on the voluntary sector, which has been added to her portfolio.
“Why didn’t Fisher have the guts to sack her?” one Town Hall source said to Inside Croydon. “She’s mucked up her job so many times. There are other good women on the Tory backbenchers who could replace her.”
The cabinet job titles of “Culture” and “Sport” have disappeared altogether, in the latter case a striking admission of abject failure by Croydon Council to even attempt to embrace the London Olympic Games. Councillor Pollard, who is the most capable cabinet member, has been given the role of managing the libraries and recreation roles, even if they are not in this deputy leader’s title.
There are already signs that Pollard is trying to repair some of the damage done on libraries by Bashford. Will Fisher’s council be less Philistine in the two years before they ask Croydon for their votes?
IT WAS MARGARET THATCHER who once said “there is no such thing as ‘society’.” That certainly seems to be the case for Croydon’s Conservatives, where the cabinet job for “Big Society”, created in the first flush of excitement after David Cameron coined the term on entry to 10 Downing Street, has now been quietly dropped in Katharine Street.
This was Councillor Vidhi Mohan’s job but having, like all of us, never really worked out what Cameron spindoctor Steve Hilton meant by the phrase, he’s no longer required by Fisher to search for that Holy Grail.
Another of the job titles to go is “Sustainability”. That leaves Croydon Conservatives with a most unwanted potential slogan for the 2014 elections: “No culture, no sport, no Big Society, no Olympics, no sustainability”.
Pollard sheds his role on economic development, that task passing to the less competent Mohan. This is the fourth councillor to have held the economic development portfolio in the last three years.
This is an unfortunate inconsistency when Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has said that getting Croydon regenerated is a key target for his Mayoralty. It’s no wonder Croydon business does not see this role being taken seriously by the council.
Pollard is appointed Deputy Leader (Communications), showing that despite Eric Pickles’ desire to end public money being spent on municipal spin, communication is regarded as key role at Croydon Council. If relationships improve with the council’s residents, this will have proved to be a good appointment by Fisher, although Pollard inherits a council press office which is managed by someone with no media background, and has its third head of media relations (yet another expensive interim appointment) in less than a year.
With Steve O’Connell re-elected as London Assembly Member, the Kenley councillor and Sutton Conservative parliamentary spokesman has seen his Town Hall responsibilities widened to cover budget planning. Along with Pollard and Phil “Two Permits” Thomas, he is already one of the more conscientious day time attenders at the Town Hall.
Dudley Mead has the other part of the budget – capital spending. This seems a rather perverse and unhelpful split for the council’s money management but Cuddly Dudley is a keen on social house building and, of course, on the Chubby Brown and wrestling shows at the Fairfield Halls, the only arts organisation to receive largesse from the council, thanks to Mead’s patronage.
So there’s still only two women on the Tories’ front bench at Croydon Town Hall, compared to the five opposite them. Nor is there anyone under 35 in the Conservative council’s cabinet. Post-riots, it all looks a bit stale and out of touch. What is it about the likes of councillors Claire Hilley, Yvette Hopley, Richard Chatterjee or Jeet Bains that has failed to impress Fisher and win them promotion?
At least Fisher has exhibited a special sense of humour in appointing the Tories’ sole councillor from New Addington, Tony Pearson, to be in charge of “police relations”. Crystal Palace supporters may not see the joke.
- Inside Croydon: Comment and analysis from the heart of Croydon. Not published from Redhill. Please post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Croydon quizzed on hiring of security guards for Bashford (insidecroydon.com)
- “Book Token” takes one in the Eye on library closures (insidecroydon.com)
- South End residents and businesses look to oust Tesco (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon’s list of great residents omits David Lean. Why? (insidecroydon.com)