Croydon’s Conservative-run council was tonight accused of being “out of control” and mis-spending Council Tax money in an “obscene way”.
Timothy Godfrey, the opposition Labour spokesman on libraries, took the opportunity of an emergency meeting at the Town Hall to call on the ruling Tories to abandon plans to hand the running of the borough’s libraries to an outside business, and instead “do the right thing for this town”.
Godfrey and Labour colleagues had tabled a motion calling for the emergency meeting after Godfrey was expelled from the budget-setting meeting last month when the shadow cabinet member was prevented from asking questions of his opposite number, Tim Pollard, over an announcement that the council’s preferred bidder, John Laing Integrated Services, had bridled over taking on pension liabilities for library staff.
It was time, Godfrey said, “to move on from its failed partnership with John Laing and instead empower the communities we all seek to serve through a new style of public service”. JLIS is a subsidiary of the developers, Laing, with whom Croydon is 50-50 partners in the ultra-secretive £450million Urban Regeneration Vehicle, which could include the borough’s library buildings.
In the opening speech tonight, Godfrey recalled attending a public meeting in Coulsdon three years ago, shortly after the current council had withdrawn the mobile library and was “consulting” over a scheme to close six other branch libraries. “I was just able to get into the church where the meeting was being held, as well over 150 people had turned out to demonstrate their fury at this council’s plans,” Godfrey told the meeting.
“A member of the public spoke at that meeting with passion for his local library, his local community, his family and friends, and said that he was fed up with the council always ‘consulting’ on what it would not be doing any more. It never consulted on what could be done. He wanted change, and he wanted his council to listen to him.
“That speech struck a chord with me, because he wasn’t interested in the mechanics of how his library was run. He wasn’t interested in the council arguments about vicious cuts to council funding from the Tory-led government,” Godfrey said.
“He was interested in his library. He was interested in how his community is served by the council.”
Godfrey claims that nearly half of Croydon’s budget for running its libraries is being spent not on books, librarians or related activities, but on behind-the-scenes facilities at the council’s offices, computers, facilities management, call centres and legal services. Godfrey believes that the council is bleeding the libraries of cash, while propping up inefficient back-office operations across the Town Hall generally.
Godfrey described this as “obscene”.
“Croydon Council has got out of control,” he said. “It is an obscene way to run a council. It is an obscene way to spend the Council Tax of Croydon residents.”
Godfrey said that the council’s privatisation plans will only “create fresh bureaucracy and lower the quality of the service”.
He described this as, “Fresh bureaucracy in a new set of contract managers. Lower quality of service as Laing the house builder screws down staffing levels to increase profits.”
Croydon Council has tried to keep much of the detail of the libraries contract offered to JLIS a secret; it is thought that Croydon would pay £30 million over eight years to JLIS for running the libraries. But JLIS was due to start operations in Croydon on April 1, and their belated dislike for meeting library staff’s pension liabilities has left the service in limbo.
JLIS’s management, as they re-tender alongside Greenwich Leisure, must also consider that any work in Croydon may be short-term, as Godfrey repeated his party’s previous warning that, should Labour win the Town Hall elections in a year’s time, “on Day One we will serve notice to John Laing that the contract will be at an end”.
Godfrey said, “We will end the culture of privatisation. We will end the culture of waste. We will start a new culture of openness and engagement with the communities we seek to serve right across this borough.”
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