Residents ill-served by Town Hall self-serving politics

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Council meetings at the Town Hall are poor theatre and rarely achieve much, despite considerable public cost, as this week’s emergency library meeting demonstrated, says STEVEN DOWNES

Town Hall at nightWhat are Croydon Council meetings at the Town Hall for?

What do they ever achieve?

To misappropriate Edwin Starr’s lyric, the only conclusion is: “absolutely nothing”.

I say this after Monday’s “emergency” council meeting, called by the opposition Labour group to contest the privatisation of the borough’s public libraries. Once more, it was a matter of far more heat than light being generated around the subject of the £30 million, eight-year, publicly funded  contract which may, or may not, be handed on a platter to John Laing Integrated Services.

The concept of a forum-style chamber, invented by the ancient Greeks and honed over recent centuries by the Mother of Parliaments, is that proposals are discussed, their flaws exposed and – hopefully – amended for the benefit of the whole community. It is the model that most Town Hall council chambers have been based upon.

But in Croydon in 2013, the Town Hall chamber is never used to develop better policies for residents. All too often, the Town Hall is simply a venue for a grandstanding sort of puerile political ping-pong, one side making its statement, being roundly booed by the other. It is the sort of conduct that is so widely despised by “ordinary”, and “non-political” people (there’s an argument that none of us are “ordinary”, nor “non-political”, but we’d need to return to that at some other time).

It is definitely the sort of conduct which persuades “ordinary” people to be “non-political”.

Take Monday night as an example. Senior councillors from one side, let’s call them “the reds”, stood up and delivered carefully prepared speeches, and in turn, councillors from the other side, “the blues”, then read out their speeches and their prepared jokes and gags.

Then, all those on the red side went and voted for the emergency motion, and all those on the blue side voted against it. And that was it. Nothing changed, nothing was improved, nothing was learned.

No questions about the detail of the library privatisation deal were asked – and there’s plenty of questions that need answering. No one from the ruling Conservative group was held accountable for the extraordinary mishandling of the contract tendering process that had led to the emergency meeting being called.

Mike Fisher and Tony Newman, leaders of Croydon's Tory and Labour groups: they exercise outstanding party discipline

Mike Fisher and Tony Newman, leaders of Croydon’s Tory and Labour groups: they exercise outstanding party discipline

Perhaps the saddest thing is that this meeting was an example of an absolute lack of imagination among Croydon’s 70 ward councillors. At least at Westminster, there’s the occasional “maverick” MP, who dares defy his party whip, maybe a few who abstain on a vote out of their personal conscience, or even some “rebels”, who vote against their party line because they hold a conviction that it is just wrong.

But not at Croydon Council. We think that the last time that a councillor, Tory or Labour, demonstrated that they had a mind of their own and voted against their party line might have been 12 years ago. Since then, barely as much as an abstention.

Are all our councillors really so craven, so devoid of conscience or conviction?

Last month, David Callam suggested on this site that 70 ward councillors is far too many in Croydon. In effect, we, the Council Tax-payers, are paying nearly £600,000 per year for “allowances” to the 50 lobby-fodder non-cabinet members. The 20 cabinet and shadow cabinet members between them probably draw even more in allowances.

It is informative that, for all the cost-cutting and “economies” passed through Croydon Town Hall in the last three to four years, one economy that has never been suggested, from either side of the council chamber, is the radical cutting of councillors’ allowances and benefits. Indeed, shortly after retaining control of the council at the 2010 elections, Mike Fisher’s Tory group – which has reduced services to the public while increasing Council Tax – voted unanimously to increase their own council allowances. Funny that.

It is little wonder that the “ordinary” and “non-political” people of Croydon feel that they are taken for granted, especially by their often-times self-serving local politicians. Apart from asking for our votes once every four years, where is the real accountability? The transparency and openness?

Granted, there are, even in Croydon, some very hard-working ward councillors, Conservative as well as Labour, who are on call for their local residents at regular surgeries and throughout the week. Given that most councillors are part-timers, with full-time jobs elsewhere, this is a considerable commitment to their community, and deserving of respect.

But there are others, too many, who use Croydon Town Hall for their self-aggrandisement, their own, petty, personal political ambitions and, let’s face it, for an Arfur Daley-style nice little earner.

MONDAY’S MEETING was also a demonstration of how even the conduct of Town Hall politics in Croydon is, frankly, just not very good. Boiled down, the emergency meeting was a facile waste of time and money, and the Labour group, as the instigators of it, need to take responsibility for this.

The motion, put forward by the opposition’s spokesman on culture and libraries, Timothy Godfrey (we are grateful to Councillor Godfrey for posting it on a comment on the site here), smacked of bad politics and lazy politics.

Bad politics? At the end of last year, the decision to award the libraries contract to John Laing Integrated Services was referred to the council’s scrutiny committee … by Conservative councillors. Labour, too, asked for the decision to be scrutinised.

Tim Pollard: "He's no Stephen Fry"

Tim Pollard: “He’s no Stephen Fry”

Now this might suggest that was just a slim chance that there are some on the blue side of the Town Hall chamber who have some sort of reservations about the whole shabby business over our libraries.

So a motion that concentrated on condemning the contract and questioning favoured bidders JLIS’s fickleness over the library staff’s pension issue might, just, have offered one or two on the Tory side an opportunity to break party discipline and at least abstain from the motion. A point would have been made.

Instead, Labour’s motion offered a hostage to fortune by outlining a glorious future for the borough’s libraries being run as co-operatives, a policy that no self-respecting Tory is ever going to vote against. This was bad politics.

Lazy politics? The motion did manage to cause what the American military would call “collateral damage”, as it created outrage among the local library campaign.

They claimed not to have been consulted and to hold serious reservations about the co-op model, which Tim Pollard, the Conservative councillor in charge of the library deal, managed to highlight to hilarious effect in the chamber on Monday night (“Funny, Tim, but you’re no Stephen Fry. More Les Dennis”, was one comment from the gallery).

Godfrey says that he has consulted the various ginger groups attached to the libraries over the co-op scheme.

Not unreasonably, there are some who ask, if Godfrey is able to deliver the kind of cost savings that he promises through wielding an axe to the back-office costs that have so burdened the library budget, why is it not possible to have in-house managed public libraries, at least at 2009 levels of service? This would render the co-operative project redundant.

After all, a council-managed library service had worked very well for more than a hundred years when run by trained and experienced librarians (of which now, after three years of hollowing out the service, there are sadly too few left in Croydon). What is so wrong about having good, efficient public services being run for the benefit of the public, by a publicly accountable body?

It was former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan who characterised the Thatcher government’s privatisation policies on state-owned gas, water, telephone and other utilities as “selling off the family silver”. Now, 30 years on, there’s precious left to flog off.

So we have the NHS being handed out to private contractors, schools that have been built and equipped with millions of pounds of public cash being transferred to political party donors to be run as “academies”, and libraries to be managed by a firm of builders. The sorry shame of all this is that most of these policies were brought in by the last Labour government.

So if the policies of the two parties, the reds and the blues, have become so indistinguishable, is it any wonder that out “ordinary” and “non-political” residents wonder what’s the point of voting for either?

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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8 Responses to Residents ill-served by Town Hall self-serving politics

  1. Great post, the problem is the political process as seen by the public is just theatre.

    The parties make the decisions behind closed doors at group level and regardless of any other information or views that come to light the whole party will stick to their guns and no real debate that could hopefully change or improve policy takes place in public.

    The committees are supposed to hold cabinet to account but when the people on them are chosen by the group leaders there is no checks and balances at all and this is how we end up with bad policy. Too many councillors are professional politicians now and rely on the income they receive so those in cabinet especially are always going to back the group leader as he can sack them at a moment’s notice, and if the councillor has no other source of income they are never going to disagree with them.

    Local government is desperately in need of reform because we have behind closed doors policy making, no scrutiny and once their party votes the party leaders in (again behind closed doors) then they are little better than dictators as they hold so much power and have so little public scrutiny of their decisions.

  2. In strategic planning there is a very good saying: “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.

    Every time I try to get to grips with a problem in our community I run into this problem: that there is an absence of strategic planning. At every level, across every issue, there seems to be an awful lot of waste and busy activity which lacks strategic direction. So individuals cannot solve problems because they cannot deal with the bigger picture – vision, debate and arriving at well considered, consensus decisions is lacking in so many areas.

    Anyone that tries to change the situation risks being isolated and vilified, there is a culture of excluding anyone who is different, who questions, or does not conform. Croydon desperately needs to move to a culture of open, modern management practises which engage the whole community with respect.

  3. jonathanrose says:

    I suspect most of this can be attributed to one thing; a breakdown in community.

    Not in the apocalyptic Daily Mail sense, but just in the simple taking time meet with others in their local area.

    When people physically meet together (regularly) in a ‘third space’ – mutual bonds of understanding and respect are fostered. Do this regularly enough and they can become, in sorts, a ‘bloc’. I’m aware – so the encyclopaedias tell me – that these blocs would even name themselves such curious monikers as ‘Labour Clubs’ or ‘Women’s Institute’ or ‘Foxley Lane Knitting Society’.

    In the days of yore, blocs like these were where – again, as the encyclopaedia tells me – policies would be fleshed out, alliances made, community-focussed leaders cultivated and the local temperature could be taken.

    Now, in our hyper-individualised lives of broadband, upward mobility and sporadic acts of guilt-induced humanism, we are content to remain siloed in alienating home-work-pub lifestyles, disjointed from others (both similar and different to ourselves) and living vicariously through local news articles. It’s no surprise we are held hostage to a local government hegemony which consistently dumps on us and exploits our apathy.

    Political reform – at every level – is unobtainable. Seriously. Everyone bays for “reform” and “more scrutiny”, but really: what are they going to do about it? As if some ‘deus ex machina’ will come from the sky and make everything alright if you leave enough blog comments or sit at home and grumble enough to your other half.

    For better or worse, we are stuck with an entrenched and institutionally incompetent political system. And that’s just in Croydon. Short of the ‘revolution’* which many pretend they have the appetite for – but are mentally, physically and economically incapable of delivering – there is very little one can do to challenge this. (*Last time I checked, anarchic mobs challenging entrenched social structures in Croydon didn’t so much lead to much in the way of political reform, unless reform includes burning down furniture stores)

    A solution? Fostering connected and a participatory community. Or even simpler: Meet people. Get involved.

    Physically and virtually.

    Do you want safer streets? Get involved in your Neighbourhood watch.

    Reduced council services? Sure lobby them and sign a few virtual forms indignantly OR get together with locals and fill the deficit.

    This won’t rectify the scandalous mismanagement of money and our taxes (apart from calls for ‘scrutiny’ or ‘change of government’, I’d love to hear a *proper* solution for this) but it will meet felt needs, however imperfectly.

    In many ways, Croydon – as with everywhere – suffers from a paucity of vision and ability amongst its residents (myself included). People (myself included) seem content to leave the agency of their lives in the hands of the political classes because it conveniently exonerates them from a) taking responsibility and b) having to do something about it.

    In short, it’s incumbent upon us as local residents to do two things;

    – Create alternative ‘blocs’ which challenge the entrenched political ‘blocs’ of Croydon Town Hall

    – Create alternative ‘blocs’ that aren’t just defined by being against political ‘blocs’, but also are good, worthy and laudable in and of themselves.

    Or something.

  4. Are all our councillors really so craven, so devoid of conscience or conviction? Yes, sadly, many fall into this category.

    Being a councillor should not be a full time job and the only source of income because, when it is, the person loses touch with reality and the people he/she was elected to serve.

    Let’s nor forget the job comes with two free parking permits and extra allowances within the Council sphere and beyond. Just think of what the Leader of the Council receives for sitting on the LFB Board. Is it the only ‘extra’? Is he the only one?

    Politicians want to cling on to their privileges for life when, in the real world, there are no longer ‘safe’ jobs. Just think of all the Council staff that was sacked in Croydon only through ‘efficiencies’.

    I may be ‘ordinary’ but I am definitely ‘political': I have chosen a party and will stick with it because I strongly believe in its ethos. Nevertheless, a change is needed and drastic measures are required to achieve it. It will be painful but the result will be worth the pain.

    Whoever speaks the truth may be isolated and vilified. Confucius said “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”. Fortitude and perseverance always succeed.

    Dulcis in fundo: I did vote for proportional representation.

  5. I disagree that most of Croydon’s problems stem from a breakdown in community. Croydon residents are ill-informed and misled and that is the way our Council likes it.

    The libraries fiasco is a prime example. Residents spoke up in their thousands but the local politicians ignored them and continue to do so.

    A handful of us work tirelessly to keep the campaign going, representing the views of all. We’ve highlighted and got the evidence to show the consultation was a sham, that cuts were forced through – plans for some of these even instigated before residents got a chance to voice an opinion – with more to come. The Council have made few announcements and those they have are peripheral. Most residents are left confused and therefore immobilised.

    We continue to seek to represent residents’ views but the politicians on both sides do not want to hear. To give you a few examples:

    All but one resident was blocked from speaking at the scrutiny meeting on libraries and this resident did not have access to the huge body of evidence held by the campaign so spoke real sense but did not represent the community. Croydon Tory Jason Cummings said, as the scrutiny committee withdrew to conduct the rest of the meeting in camera, that he wanted scrutiny to hear the evidence gleaned by the campaign and gave his assurance he would be in touch and that no decision would be taken before this evidence had been heard. Despite leaving full contact details, as agreed, we still wait to hear. This promise was, at best – disingenuous, at worst – a lie.

    But Labour are really no better. Having listened initially, they are now pushing the co-op model of libraries and we take great issue that Labour are using the campaign by suggesting we support their plans. We do not, for the simple reason that no one was consulted and residents have no idea what it means.

    The other big issue for Croydon, which the politicians delight in seeing and cultivating, is The Croydon Glee Club. After the riots we were all expected to jump on the “I Love Croydon” bandwagon. This led those sucked into this to adopt the “let’s jump in and do it for ourselves” mentality, but this deflects from finding long term solutions for the many problems facing Croydon. It’s like plastering a sticking plaster over a gaping wound and pretending all will be all right. If the current administration thought they’d have got away with it we’d all have been issued with rose-tinted specs!

    What Croydon really needs is some honesty, proper engagement and representation. Only then will we rebuild Croydon on sound foundations. It is true that those who do speak out are often vilified and belittled for doing so. If the Glee-clubbers amongst us took a moment from their cosmetic pursuits and stood up to really understand and face the issues, lending support to those who are speaking out, they could make a real difference for the better!

    Elizabeth Ash
    Member of Save Croydon Libraries Campaign

  6. Independent councillors. I think that’s part of the answer.

    I may be off the mark but I think there’s a lot of crap & pressure coming down from national party structures. In other words, control and political pressure from national party officials and other forces we don’t know about. So local politicians are more eager to appease these folks rather than Croydonians.

    The answer to this would be to elect people not affiliated with any of the big parties.

  7. What Croydon needs are councillors who answer to, regularly consult with and fully represent their ward residents. I can confirm that UKIP has no whip for their councillors and so WILL vote for their residents and will not be following national party policies. This is outlined in the manifesto (at http://myukip.com/) for this year’s County elections, which are being held outside Greater London. This policy will, of course, be part of the UKIP manifesto for the Croydon elections in 2014.

    If more than one UKIP councillor is elected to Croydon next year I would be very disappointed and surprised if they do not sometimes vote against each other due to differing views of residents in their respective wards.

  8. Jo Wittams says:

    I have also found this when trying to get information, clarification and support from my ward councillors. I am currently attempting to campaign against the cuts proposed to school crossing patrols in my area – based on the false premise that zebra crossings are safer places to cross the road (research shows that they are not, they are more dangerous).

    When I raised the issue with one of my ward councillors he assured me that the budget was not being cut, it was being ‘passported’ to schools. This was not right. He then blamed the Tories for not telling him. I had read it in the paper…

    I am also guessing the Labour councillors are feeling quite happy at the prospect of some new fancy desks, regardless of how the people that they represent are suffering through cuts :(

    I support the Green Party and proportional representation. Democracy in Croydon is a joke – unless you’re an insider you have no chance of getting the full information you need to make a real difference.

    Despite this, I’m going to keep trying.

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