Croydon Council’s controversial disposal of thousands of pounds-worth of furniture from Taberner House, ahead of staff being moved into the £140 million new glass palace office building, has raised further complaints of an abuse of public property, with suggestions that the furniture might be given to community groups by councillors in marginal wards in an attempt to win favour – and votes – in the months leading up to the 2014 Town Hall elections.
As revealed by Inside Croydon last week, the surplus to requirements public property has been offered first to Croydon’s 70 councillors – Labour as well as Tories – as a consequence of the ruling Conservative group rubber-stamping expenditure of £3 million on comfy new furnishings for Bernard Weatherill House.
This ready “generosity” with public property has at best been badly handled (by Croydon Council, what a surprise!), but at worst might not be the altruistic gesture the ruling Tory group would have everyone believe.
Peter Staveley, the chairman of the local UKIP group and a candidate for next May’s Town Hall elections, told Inside Croydon that the free furniture is “… yet another indication that the ruling group on Croydon Council, that is the Conservative cabinet, has either not thought-through the implications of what they are saying or they are more interested in paying themselves more tax-payer money”.
One member of council leader Mike Fisher’s cabinet, Vidhi Mohan, went on Twitter to lie that the furniture was meant only for voluntary and community groups, and not for councillors.
Yet anyone seeing the official email offer sent to councillors last week will notice that councillors have priority choice on all the available equipment.
The borough’s schools were notified of the furniture’s availability, too, but only late last week, when most schools’ staffs were preoccupied with arrangements for the end of term immediately before the long summer break. This will significantly reduce the chance that any schools will claim the furniture.
And while the council’s conditions of use for the second-hand furniture include how it is to be used only within the borough, in a council building or by a group or individual on official council duties, the terms are pretty worthless. Croydon Council has virtually no contract supervision on some of its multi-million-pound service deals. For example, with bin collections (in another Croydon false economy to “save” money), the contractors are allowed to monitor their own performance…
So the chances of the council ensuring that councillors only use former pieces of council furniture according to the terms seems utterly remote.
“Once the furniture has been obtained, there is nothing to stop a councillor from giving it to their friends,” Staveley said.
“What is worse is that since this donation is so close to the forthcoming council elections, then it could be used to aid their re-election campaign. This could apply to both Labour and Conservative councillors.
“I could accept that receiving free furniture would be a nice and acceptable windfall perk to being a councillor provided that they did the role voluntarily. However, they are all paid an allowance which, I would have thought, is meant to cover councillors’ expenses including obtaining furniture. So why are councillors not being forced to pay for that furniture out of those allowances?
“They also have free access to council facilities in offices, which is a further effective increase in their allowances,” Staveley said.
Staveley highlights the more than generous “allowances” paid in Croydon. According to the London Councils report for the latest financial year, 2012-2013, the allowance for ordinary borough councillors (that is, not cabinet members) in Greater London was between £7,528 and £10,872 per year. Yet here in Croydon, one of the first acts of Fisher and his Tory-led administration on retaining control in 2010 was to hike allowances to the highest in the capital, starting at £11,239.
Cabinet members, including Fisher and Mohan, who made the decision to increase the allowances, now each receive more than £43,000 and, as Staveley underlines, “They often have a full-time job in addition to their council work.”
Staveley said, “So we have councillors paying themselves lots of tax-payers’ money and yet still able to accept free donations of furniture that was originally bought at tax-payers’ expense. Due to those councillors’ decisions in previous years, that furniture cannot be used for the new council offices. The new offices might easily have been designed to accept much of the old furniture, so saying tax-payer money.
“We are all paying for this with a 1.8 per cent increase in our Council Tax and an ever-increasing local debt that Croydon Council (under both Labour and Conservative administrations) has allowed to keep increasing. If a business put their charges up then we, as consumers, have the option of taking our custom to another business. Unfortunately Croydon Council is a monopoly supplier and we have to pay their charges,” the local UKIP leader said.
Inside Croydon asked Mohan, a councillor for Fairfield ward, to detail the community groups for which he had put in claims for some of the second-hand council furniture. Mohan has failed to respond.
It is understood that even before the email was circulated to councillors last Thursday, Mike Fisher, who is a councillor in Shirley ward, put in a request for some items of furniture to be used at Shirley Community Centre, where he is also a trustee. A nice little gift to the voters in his ward in the months before an election?
Staveley says that he is the chairman of a Croydon-based charity, but that his organisation has received no offer of free furniture from the council, providing another example of preferential treatment to councillors and the groups which they favour. “So much for wanting to ensure that the furniture went to charities,” he said.
He laid down a challenge for all Croydon’s councillors, Labour as well as Tory.
“In the interests of having a fully transparent council,” Staveley said, “let’s have a declaration by every councillor (Labour and Conservative) that they have not accepted any free furniture nor have they allowed any free furniture to find its way into party campaign offices or on to friends.
“Or, if they have obtained any furniture, they should confirm that they have paid the council a reasonable amount for it and declare what that amount was.”
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