CROYDON COMMENTARY: Politics is broken and we need to fix it, says DAVID CALLAM, as he offers some radical solutions to reduce the costs of democracy at the Town Hall and at City Hall
Our institutions need some major surgery if we are ever to reach a position where we trust them. Let me float a few ideas.
Locally, we need to reduce the Town Hall shenanigans as well as the costs. We have too many representatives with too little to do.
At the moment, 22 wards in Croydon have three councillors, while two have two, making a total of 70 councillors for our borough. Croydon spends around £1.2 million per year in “allowances” on these 70 councillors.
The numbers are an anachronism in the 21st century, determined at a time when society was structured very differently and few people had access to a telephone or a car, let alone more modern means of communication.
I would reduce the number of councils in Greater London from 33 to five. I see Croydon as part of a south London grouping made up of six existing boroughs – Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Richmond, Sutton and Wandsworth.
If we elected four representatives for each of the 11 Parliamentary constituencies in the area, we could create a lithe “South London Assembly” of just 44.
The change would result in an immediate cut of almost 85 per cent in the public money being spent on councillors’ expenses and executive salaries, together with a reduction in the overall salary bill due to greater efficiency. It would allow the new assembly to maintain or even to reduce current levels of council tax.
I would do away with attendance money. I would reimburse reasonable out-of-pocket expenses, but being a representative would be an honorary appointment until you reach cabinet level. Then you would qualify for a salary determined as a proportion of the amount paid to a Greater London Assembly (GLA) member.
I would pay the new chief executive no more than 80 per cent of the £144,000 annual salary paid to the Mayor of London. I regard the £248,000 package paid to Croydon’s former chief executive as obscene and I would like to surcharge the irresponsible councillor(s) who agreed to it.
I see some borough responsibilities passing up the political chain to an enhanced GLA, with an increase in the number of Assembly Members to one per borough. Including London-wide members, that’s a total of around 40.
I would give a new assembly more control over the day-to-day doings of the Mayor – thus making it less “supine, invertebrate and jelly-like”, to paraphrase BoJo.
And I would give it more responsibility for strategic decision-making. We need to think less about London’s towns in splendid isolation and more about them as the economic power-houses of one of Europe’s most successful city regions.
Anyone who has looked aghast at the wasteland in central Croydon; who has bemoaned the lacklustre management of the borough’s arts facilities; or who has watched the pigs’ breakfast made of letting a simple libraries management contract will realise that such important matters need a more professional approach.
I consider it highly significant that a recent announcement about a multi-million pound, commercial redevelopment of Croydon town centre was made not by the leader of Croydon Council but by the Mayor of London. I imagine Boris Johnson thinks he was responsible for closing the deal when our council apparently could not.
Local and regional government is not entirely responsible for the mess in which it finds itself. Its strings are mercilessly pulled by central government, which controls 75 per cent of its income.
Once upon a time, Croydon Council built a magnificent Town Hall, a superb concert hall, a modern theatre and a splendid library, all funded with money it raised locally. These days it would need to go cap-in-hand to central government for each of these projects, where it might well be mocked for its impertinence.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson complains bitterly and vociferously about the amount of tax raised in Greater London that is spent – he implies squandered – elsewhere in Britain.
We need a more transparent means of raising and spending taxes that makes local and regional authorities more directly accountable. I favour a return to locally levied property taxes – be it mansion or pied-a-terre – but I’m sure some acolytes of the Blessed Margaret would disagree.
Nationally, we need to complete the devolution started by Tony Blair: an English parliament raising its own taxes, with similar powers for assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That would end the need for English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish members to sit in each other’s parliaments.
I can envisage a second chamber covering the whole of the United Kingdom, if all four home countries are in favour. But it need not necessarily be in London. Now there’s a debate that could run and run.
I would turn the Palace of Westminster into a parliamentary museum – some believe it’s that already, with its quaint voting procedures and officials dressed for Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
Imagine being able to watch live enactments of famous occasions, like Michael Heseltine’s mace waving or Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech. You could even have a drink in one of the many members’ bars – providing you paid full price.
I would replace the Palace of Varieties with a semi-circular chamber similar to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, possibly on the south side of the Thames at Nine Elms.
I would be happy to pay MPs more money – up to £100,000 a year – but I would reduce the numbers. There are 534 MPs representing English constituencies. I would cut that to 400 and insist that each was a full-time employee.
I would re-organise the work schedule so that most of the business is done in sub-committees rather than on the floor of the chamber.
I would restrict sittings to office hours, three days a week. And I would make MPs spend an additional two days a week – maybe Mondays and Fridays – working in their constituencies.
Hopefully, the introduction of family-friendly hours would encourage more women to stand as MPs – the balance is slowly improving, but more needs to be done.
And that’s before I start to consider the co-located European Parliament in Brussels and Strasburg – but that’s a whole new ball game.
Previous columns by David Callam:
- Dear Boris: an open letter on transport to the Mayor of London
- Failing Fairfield Halls is limping along on borrowed time
- In to the Valley: Croydon’s wrong turn on road to future
- Is Boris the man to make prefabs sprout in London?
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
- Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or local event, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Lollipop patrols face the axe on danger roads in Croydon (standard.co.uk)
- Whoops… Council setting the agenda for blunders (insidecroydon.com)
- Homelessness: the growing bed and breakfast crisis (guardian.co.uk)