The Alice in Wonderland world at the Town Hall gets curiouser and curiouser. Anyone might think that the nice people at Croydon Council don’t know what they are doing.
They certainly don’t want us to know what they are doing over the half-a-billion pound office development that is being built on council-owned land at the centre of Croydon.
Attempts over the past year or more by councillors from the opposition group – all properly elected representatives – to view details of the development deals have been refused, with the Labour group only being allowed to see copies of the contracts with all values and financial amounts omitted, or “redacted”.
So much for openness and transparency, as espoused by Big Eric Pickles, the Conservative-led government’s minister in charge of local councils.
Despite the best efforts of Croydon’s version of the Ministry of
UnTruth, there are figures out there in the public domain. That’s why here at Inside Croydon we continue to refer to “The Hub” as a £450 million scheme – because that’s how it is described by the council’s commercial “partners”.
Last month, the Inside Croydon mailbox was full to busting with an email from someone who described himself as a “senior press officer” at the Ministry of
“I wonder if you could tell me where you got the figure of £450 million for the new offices?” asked the press officer, breaking the golden rule that all real journalists understand, that you never ask for nor volunteer the sources of your information.
Within three hours of the original email, another mail arrived at Inside Croydon Towers. This was more insistent, almost impatient. Some might even categorise it as rude and bullying.
“Are you going to respond to this? If you can’t substantiate something you have reported repeatedly as fact you need to do something about it,” said the email from the north-west corner of Taberner House‘s 7th floor.
The following day, we received a phone call from the very same “Press and public relations; Strategy & communications; Resources & customer services” operator, who was no longer asking for us to tell him our sources or substantiate our report, but was now “demanding” – the word he actually used – that we “do something about it”.
We put this to the press officer: Wasn’t he, in fact, a public servant whose salary is paid by the council tax-payers of Croydon, and that therefore he really had got the relationship all wrong, and that he ought to be the one answering our questions, and not the other way round?
Then we assured him that we had got our figures from several public domain sources, so perhaps he could direct us to the council’s own version of what the new Hub offices will cost.
“You can’t have got it from us,” said the publicly funded press officer, sounding somewhat smug, “because we have never published them.”
Ahhh, the fresh breeze of openness and transparency.
A couple of weeks and several emails later, we got a response from the press department’s head honcho. And the party line, as determined by the council’s ruling Conservative group, was fully adhered to. The head honcho wrote of Croydon Council’s £450 million Hub scheme: “Effectively the build is zero-cost to taxpayers (though to be clear, this would not include fixtures and fittings – just the actual building) based on the sale of other assets the council owns.”
Based on the sale of other assets the council owns. So that’s not “zero cost” then, is it?
The acronym-rich council report can be accessed by clicking here (section 4 is the really interesting bit).
The report admits to the council stepping in with a loan when commercial financing was not available to the developers, to the tune of at least £145 million in public money, which the residents of Croydon will be paying off until 2059. Not that you’ll find the figures or interest rate mentioned in the council papers.
What the report does mention is the “risk” associated with the development. But the council – “our” council – does not trust us to be able to make our own minds up after seeing the actual figures involved for ourselves.
The Ministry of
UnTruth is like a dog with a bone with all this. It must be something to do with the ruling Conservative group’s anxiety to airbrush its involvement in such a vanity project. Given that the contract was signed with developers John Laing in 2008, when everyone knew that the financial crash caused by billionaire bankers on Wall Street and in The City was on its way, it now has all the appearance of a recklessly spendthrift scheme.
But rest assured, dear reader. Croydon Council’s £660,000 per year spend on Your Croydon (Croydon’s very own “Town Hall Pravda“, copyright Eric Pickles 2010) and its press office is money well spent. Why, they actually employ someone who spent a good hour or so sending multiple comments to this website – all exactly the same, all making the same point:
“The council is not spending £450 million building new offices. That figure is the potential sale value of sites included in a regeneration deal between the council and Laing… The details of the project have been published and widely available for some time.”
The details of the project have been published and widely available for some time.
Hang on. Didn’t someone else from the council’s press office previously say that “You can’t have got it from us, because we have never published them”?
And didn’t the council refuse to allow Labour councillors to see the unedited contracts?
And hasn’t the council refused Freedom of Information Act requests for the details?
So who are we to believe?
Curiouser and curiouser.
- Mr Smith’s FOI: Croydon Council’s oxymorons and obfuscation (insidecroydon.com)
- Council paid interim’s £1,650 invoices for work on riots report (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon replaces £765 per day interim with… another interim (insidecroydon.com)
- Boris promises to end Croydon’s planning paralysis (insidecroydon.com)