DIAMOND GEEZER joined the audience in central Croydon for a one-man show that was a song and dance for big business and land owners, but did a soft-shoe shuffle when asked for solutions to the borough’s problems
[4.30pm update - see below]
It was an evening when Gavin Barwell could enter the room and smarm his way around like an American politician, meeting and greeting his “friends”.
But it was never clear to many in the audience quite who was who. Who was a crony from the council? Who was from the local Tory Party? Was the gofer in charge of the room’s lights a local party worker, or was he Gav’s personal assistant?
And who was there from property developers? Or from the major landowner, the Whitgift Foundation? As usual the local “peasants” in the cheap seats sat disempowered: we were not introduced to the “key stakeholders”, as we were kept in our place by the poor acoustics and the PA system of the Council Chamber.
This was Gavin’s big night. Billed as: “Regenerating Croydon: Gavin Barwell MP for Croydon Central”. No mention was made of why local MP Gavin was hosting this event, rather than involving those directly responsible from the council.
There was no mention made of what Gavin’s links are to Croydon Council. And it was 50 minutes in before Barwell mumbled that he ought to mention that indeed he is a Trustee of the major landowner, the Whitgift Foundation. Yes, those nice people based in quaint offices by the Almshouses, looking after the homes and the private schools, with around £100 million of funds to manage. Oh, and who own the majority part of the freehold of the Whitgift Centre, which is subject to some redevelopment scheme.
Gavin managed to go for nearly an hour without any mention of his role with the Foundation. How forgetful of him.
He said that he didn’t think that this was a conflict of interest, because he was not involved in the decision-making in the Trust. No, he is just on the Foundation’s finance committee, and money is nothing to do with anything.
No explanation was offered of the significance of this statement to those in the audience who did not know how interconnected all the parties were, all embodied in our one man: Gavin Barwell.
Normally in a one-man show, where the one man plays many parts, costumes change or some break occurs so that the audience can clearly see the transition from Member of Parliament, to former Croydon Councillor, to Trustee for the Whitgift Foundation, to lobbyist for big business. But at this public meeting in Croydon Town Hall, no such changes were obvious. Gavin combined all roles seamlessly into one, without so much as a flinch of conflict of interest. Throughout his long powerpoint presentation, Barwell spoke of what “we” are proposing to do to develop Croydon. But never was it clear on whose behalf he was talking.
Gavin presented a tale of a Croydon with strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, he ignored the key fact that it is the very inequality in the distribution of the good and bad aspects of life in Croydon that helped to spark last summer’s riots and causes the continuing tensions within our society.
The solution to all our problems, according to Gavin, is a form of economic ethnic cleansing. Barwell wants to focus all redevelopment efforts in central Croydon – Gavin is supposedly the MP for Croydon Central – and to bring in richer people to live in small, expensive flats concentrated around the railway stations, who will thus raise the tone of the town.
These incoming people will work in well-paid jobs in the City and West End. According to Gavin’s view, by crowding the area around the railway stations with rich people with no children, that will change the broader perception of Croydon, bring in jobs and making Croydon safer. A barely disguised and pretty sinister form of social engineering.
Gavin celebrated details of how “we” have attracted funding to the area to subsidise private developers’ projects, because in the past they had paid too much for their properties and now struggled to make a profit from them. He thus presented Croydon’s version of bailing out the bankers: rather than let wealthy developers face the consequences of their less-profitable investments, he wants the poor taxpayer to help them out. Surely, it is through taking the pain of losses that developers learn to invest responsibly, and not dump their unwanted monstrosities on our town?
In questions from the floor, Gavin displayed his utter lack of vision for Croydon, his utter lack of leadership of the community of Croydon, and his skill at ensuring that he offends no one, especially not those “stakeholders” he is really working for, such as the Conservative-run council, the multi-million pound land-owning Whitgift Foundation, and big business.
When confronted by any question that required an opinion, he fell back on to his favourite empty phrase, that “we must look at this on balance…”. Ethics, the environment, equality, the Big Society: all were absent from his answers.
Gavin did have answers, though, when it came to attributing blame for all the problems of Croydon.
NCP’s high parking charges were due to the last Labour administration, with no mention of the exorbitant on-street parking charges that the council charges at all hours in central Croydon, which forces drivers to park their cars with the NCP.
It was the concentration of poor people in the borough that sent spending in local shops down, with no mention of the discrimination the poorer parts of the borough face in the delivery of services by their council.
The cinema in Croydon does not feel safe because it exits on to a street scene of young drinkers. In Gavin’s wonderland, he would be able to drive in to a conveniently located car park with his children and enter/exit speedily without the risk of meeting any of the underclass.
No vision for “One Croydon” was presented by the Conservative MP. Indeed, it emerged that of the £23 million of the London Mayor’s post-riots emergency fund, the council has allocated £18million of it to central Croydon, at the expense of London Road, which was worse affected by the rioting. Much of this area happens to be where what Gavin regards as “poor people” live, or who happen to run small businesses, so not his sort at all.
Gavin’s presentation also lacked any coherent plan to improve Croydon schools and colleges, to improve the skills and employability of the local population; there was nothing suggested to improve the housing and access to transport of the existing residents.
There was nothing suggested to create one calm, peaceful Croydon. Fritz Lang would have been so proud of Gavin and his modern Metropolis.
It was a plan for a past age to serve the bankrupt morality of a few big stakeholders who had not yet factored in the opportunities for a completely new style of living that modern technology offers.
The peasants in the audience questioned the underlying assumptions, but Gavin chose to ignore their comments about his lack of research, his lack of vision, and his lack of understanding about where new jobs were coming from.
Rather, Gavin sought to celebrate Croydon’s failure to claim the status of an enterprise zone. According to Gavin, we have something far better – our council has a special pot of money to subsidise the rates of in-coming big business.
It sounded very similar to the kind of business rate relief that Allders appealed for before the store went into administration. They were told by the council that to grant such rate relief would “create a precedent” – presumably a precedent of our council actively helping established Croydon businesses and residents.
Gavin did not seem to consider at all that his/the council’s rate relief for incoming businesses will make the borough’s existing businesses less competitive with higher costs. As Gavin said: “I am no expert”. He is certainly no economist.
But he is a politician and we must question his vested interests:
• Massively changing the concentration of young wealthy people in central Croydon will create a majority Conservative constituency and get Gavin away from his uncomfortable marginal constituency – he will be even less accountable;
• Bringing in the richer businesses will attract in richer, nicer business people to the area and they will be able to send their children to those nice private schools Gavin kept mentioning. What a relief for the Whitgift Foundation their schools will not have to accept so many bright children from the poorer ethnic minority end of town… The lack of racial mix among the Trustees of the Foundation does not reflect the racial mix of Croydon’s children.
• Big businesses continue to make donations to party funds. Big business also has the resources to lobby. In central London, the financial services businesses dominate lobbying. Out here on the fringes of London, we are known for our susceptibility to property developers.
Gavin’s Big Plan depends entirely on subsidising big property developers with public money, on perpetuating and strengthening vested interests, and creating spaces for offices, retail, and high cost residential for which there is no apparent real demand. At least he’s right in one important respect: he’s no expert.
[UPDATE: We are happy to correct this report, which amends Gav's status within the finance committee of the £100m Whitgift Foundation. As he pointed out via Twitter, he has never been the chairman of the finance committee, as we mistakenly stated. He is merely a member of that committee. The chairmanship is reserved for Dudley Mead, the veteran Conservative councillor, a member of the board at the Fairfield Halls and another old boy of Trinity School, which we are delighted to highlight.]
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