One month on, WALTER CRONXITE, our local elections pollster who was first to call correctly the result of the Croydon Town Hall vote, takes a look behind the scenes in Fisher’s Folly to see what changes might be in store
“The Season” is in full swing. Royal Ascot is on, Wimbledon starts on Monday and there’s Pimm’s on the lawns of Henley Royal Regatta and Glyndebourne to squeeze in before Croydon South’s absentee MP, “Sir” Tricky Dicky Ottaway, can manage to find the time to slip away for a month or so’s well-earned rest on the French Riviera.
For the first time in 12 years, Croydon’s Conservatives can spend the summer weeks licking their electoral wounds, regrouping while they let Labour get on with things at the Town Hall.
Labour won the local election in Croydon a month ago with a positive message, “Ambitious for Croydon”, and in this honeymoon period they are making the effort to be positively active in the summer before the winter brings the likely misery of further ConDem government cuts to council spending.
Knowing that such cuts will drive the council even further to be reliant on voluntary groups and residents to deliver services, there is a strong emphasis on another theme from their election campaign of “building a strong community”. It’s Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour in action at a local level.
While there are some who dismiss Lambeth Labour’s co-operative model as more talk than action, Croydon Labour is intent to look at co-op councils as the solution to the borough’s funding crisis. This is evident in Croydon Council joining the co-operative councils’ network, where good innovative practice can be seen at Labour councils like Oldham and Plymouth.
Whisper it quietly when in the hearing of Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North and former leader of Lambeth Council, though: there was not a single mention of his “co-operative council” in Lambeth Labour’s manifesto last month.
According to the habitués of Fisher’s Folly, the council’s suspiciously over-expensive headquarters building, in these first four weeks Labour’s deputy leader, Stuart Collins, has been particularly impressive. Within a day of appointment, Collins had launched his “Don’t Mess with Croydon” cleaner streets campaign.
It would normally take an expensive team of PR wonks weeks to come up with a slogan, a design and the tee-shirts for the photo shoot. We are meant to believe that Collins and his officers did it in less than a day. Yes, there will be debates as to whether the slogan is a bit too confrontational, a bit too in your face, a bit too… Croydon. Actually, rather than being plucked from a scene from the Sopranos, the slogan is borrowed from “Don’t Mess with Waltham Forest”. It just sounds a bit edgier when combined with Croydon.
Whatever the merits of the slogan, it’s all good for Labour as they are seen to act quickly on residents’ concerns about the issue of a filthy borough. Street muck and fly-tipping was a leading issue at both the local elections and the Croydon North by-election. There will be three extra trucks going round picking up the dumped piles of rubbish and a new fly tip phone and reporting email address is promised “soon”.
All this is indicative that, keen to make an impact in their first 100 days in office, Croydon’s Labour council is going to have a good summer.
Positive publicity for the council will further disquiet Gavin Barwell’s re-election campaign in Croydon Central, the Tory MP’s confidence having been severely shaken by the loss of the once true blue Ashburton ward. It seems that parts of Croydon Central, through changes in population make-up, are becoming like the ultra-safe Labour Croydon North. Such fears can become self-fulfilling.
To stem the tide there is already a change in tone for the Conservatives, as Barwell imposes a more upbeat and consensual approach on the local Tory machine as he makes a huge effort to hold on to his seat at next May’s General Election.
Out goes florid-faced Mike Fisher’s and hatchet man Phil Thomas’s negative campaign lines. Instead, working in his Westminster office and paid for by the tax-payer is Barwell’s assistant, Mario Creatura, now a councillor for Coulsdon West. Using his social media “expertise” (or what more straight-talking types might call “bullshit”), Creatura has been making uncharacteristically kind remarks about Labour initiatives and suggesting cross-party working for the good of Croydon.
Labour insiders report discovering a weary team of council officials who are enthusiastic to work with a new political executive. Council directors claim that they are already in a reforming mode following the departure last year of the previous chief executive, Jon Rouse. A bullying culture is not tolerated in Bernard Weatherill House and power is now devolved to officials to act within their own discretion, claim the council’s elite employees, many of whom owe their positions to Rouse. But they maintain that the Rouse “command and control” regime has gone. Of course, that is not necessarily the view shared by council employees on salaries of less than six-figures.
Nonetheless, before the end of this month Labour wants to deliver proposals on a landlord register intended to help to improve on some of the more scandalous behaviour in the private housing sector. Such a significant development, a key promise in Labour’s manifesto, has yet to receive any promotion through official council press office channels.
There are also rumours emerging from Katharine Street that the Labour council is busily re-working plans for building executive flats on Queen’s Gardens. A development has to go ahead to help to pay for the new Council HQ. Nevertheless, some mitigation to reduce the amount of public park used for the new buildings might be possible.
Our sources suggest that the town’s historic twinning ties with Arnhem – cut by the Tories last year to save a mere £10,000 – could also be restored, with new councillor Oliver Lewis, who has strong links with the Netherlands having studied at university there, being put in charge. With the 70th anniversary of the Arnhem parachute landings in World War II rapidly approaching, this is another low-cost and populist policy Labour might have announced as they took charge of the Town Hall in the week of the poignant D-Day commemorations. It represents another missed opportunity: there was no mention of Arnhem in the speech given by the new Council Leader, Tony Newman, at the opening meeting of the new council.
Few were able to witness Newman’s speech. But access to council meetings looks likely to improve, with video podcasts of all meetings set to return. The council will no longer be reliant on audio broadcasts provided by Croydon Radio, whose decision to provide a platform for the National Front caused real anger among some Labour councillors, and embarrassment for Newman who was mislead into appearing on the same programme.
There is also to be a “Fairness Commission” to look at creating a better, strong community in Croydon, with a review as to how the council spreads its money across the borough. It has a bit of a post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission ring to it. Like the Waltham Forest slogan, it’s an approach borrowed from success elsewhere in local government, modelled on a Fairness Commission run in Islington after Labour took full control of that council four years ago.
But what may prove to be more significant is what the Fairness Commission doesn’t deal with. There will be no examination of the fairness, or otherwise, for Council Tax-payers, of the CCURV private equity company which Croydon’s Tories formed with builders John Laing to speculate public-owned property on the rates.
Nor will the Fairness Commission do anything about the risks to health in the poorer parts of Croydon caused by breathing air polluted by the proposed incinerator.
And nor will there be an inquiry into how there’s still little “riot recovery money” going to boost West Croydon three years after the riots.
The Labour council has gone very quiet on these important issues. There has been no attempt to slow the progress of the incinerator, with all the running being left to Green Party activist Shasha Khan and his to date successful pleadings in court.
And there are worrying signs elsewhere, too. The crass sponsorship of the Mayor’s Banquet by Crapita shows an odd contentment with a cosy corporate relationship and disregard for the appearance of a conflict of interest for the new Labour team. Councillors and their partners being treated to a nosh up by one of their very biggest contractors is not a seemly sight.
Such cosy complacency was visible, too, when Newman had cause to issue an emergency statement because of the illegal rave at East Croydon last weekend. The council’s communications department has long been seen as the propaganda arm of the Tories when they ran the council, even to the point of issuing clearly political press releases during the election purdah period.
Newman’s statement, when it came, lacked any sense of authentic voice from the Labour leader. Indeed, it read as if it had come straight from the desk of the “interim” chief executive, Nathan Elvery, raising the question of which of the two men is really running the council.
It was neither reassuring nor especially relevant for Newman, if these truly were his choice of words, to be saying that illegal raves don’t often happen in Croydon. Newman’s assertion that there were “no serious injuries” has since been proved to be ill-informed and tragically wrong.
The council press office’s statement put out in Newman’s name was very weak. This was in stark contrast to Barwell’s approach, which robustly challenged the police about what they knew about the rave before it started and why, as in the Croydon riots, they surrendered territory to lawlessness.
Accomplished political operators know that it does not matter what you manage to achieve unless you communicate the message speedily, clearly and in the manner that puts you in the best possible light. For Croydon’s new Labour council, whatever ambitions they might have for the borough, they need quickly to take charge of getting their message across.
The easy days of summer won’t last for long.
- Spot the difference: Crapita sponsors Labour Mayor’s banquet
- A Viscount, two Lords and a comedian back Labour campaign
- How Croydon Tories were trumped by more ideas and activists
Coming to Croydon
- Classic Car Show at Purley Rotary Fields, June 22
- David Lean Cinema: Feet from Stardom, June 23
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- David Lean Cinema: The Lunchbox, June 26
- Warnings to the Curious, Spread Eagle Theatre, June 27
- Metamono Secrets of Nature, Upper Norwood, June 27
- St Peter’s Village Fayre, South Croydon, June 28
- South Norwood Allotments open day, June 28
- Fragile, Spread Eagle Theatre, July 24-26
- Coast to Capital business briefing, July 4
- CODA’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wandle Park, Jul 30-Aug 2
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough: 72,342 average monthly page views (Jan-Mar 2014)
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