ANDREW PELLING has spent the past week visiting distraught residents, attending meetings and speaking to the people who run Croydon. He finds there’s still many unsettling questions to answer about the Croydon riots
Nearly two weeks on, the smouldering embers have dampened down, yet people are still making their way down to Reeves Corner to view the site and to take pictures.
It seems like a mourning process for Croydon residents who often just stand still, looking stunned and shocked that it could have come to this. Shocking, too, are the YouTube videos that demonstrate how policing was absent in London Road, South Croydon, Old Town and Purley Way on 8/8.
The people of Croydon clearly hope that the storm has passed. Now it’s all about recovery and repairing Croydon’s reputation.
This is a reputation that needs urgent repair: the Leader of the Council told a public meeting on Wednesday night that local trade is estimated to be down between 30 per cent and 75 per cent.
For those who are enduring the former, that must be enough to crush their businesses, already reeling through the non-recovery after the recession and the burden for their trade of 20 per cent VAT rate. For those who have lost three-quarters of their business, they must be concerned now whether they have a future at all.
Of course the riots may not be over. As well as humour there was a warning when a teenager quipped with Prince Charles on his photo op visit to Croydon, “Hey, Charlie Boy, you coming down for the next riot?”
The cathartic process at Reeves Corner was also much in evidence at a meeting in London Road where residents and traders quizzed senior police, fire and Council officers. On the panel were four of the town’s senior Tory councillors – Fisher (£53,000 pa in allowances), O’Connell (£118,000 pa including his GLA fees), Hoar (£43,000 pa) and Mohan (£43,000 pa).
The latter two sat in sullen silence throughout except for an occasional hushed comment between the two of them after someone had spoken, which was usually followed by a reciprocal giggle or smirk. We could cut those two annual allowances at a stroke and get £86,000-worth of more police and not miss their contribution one jot.
After all, their respective roles of “community safety” and “community cohesion and Big Society” seem to have not been entirely successfully delivered.
It’s not only Croydon’s reputation that is impacted following the mayhem of 8/8.
The burnt out and collapsed buildings in some parts of London Road look similar to some V-bombed properties pictured from Croydon in World War II. Some of the Croydon “great and the good” have had, in what is not meant to be a nasty turn of phrase, “a good war”. It is inevitable that in times of adversity, some are found to be leaders, while others are to be found wanting.
Outstanding has been the council’s Chief Executive Jon Rouse. Rouse deflects such praise to his officers and with appropriate professionalism to the much less deserving councillors from the ruling Conservative group.
He has led from the front, apologising where the council gets it wrong (like failing to maintain a daily dialogue with London Road traders).
But after the destruction, most important of all is delivering urgent solutions such as £500,000 fund for emergency interest-free loans, and providing professional staff from the council to help traders make their insurance claims.
The £500,000 will run out quickly but at least this is about practical solutions, rather than political spin, a lesson that would be well learned by some of the other senior figures in Croydon.
Many Croydon politicians have come out of this very badly. Of course, it’s good to turn up for photos among the burnt-out buildings to show community spirit, but others have gone over-the-top, paying more attention to boosting their media profile than restorative work in their constituencies. An example is the rather breathless Tweet from @GavinBarwellMP that says: “On Channel 5 news at 5pm and @lbc1973 with @IainDale at 9pm”.
Is that Barwell promoting Croydon, or Barwell promoting Barwell?
“Please leave a message after the tone”
It is the senior Croydon politicians who come out by far the worst in this crisis. At 9am on 8/8, the police were already warning traders in London Road of serious trouble expected in the town centre. What did the politicians do with that information?
Our town has been represented in the past by some top class politicians: Jack Weatherill, John Moore and Sir William Clark for starters. If their town had been threatened with violent mayhem and they had 10 hours’ notice, you can bet your bottom dollar that they would have spoken to the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary or the Met Police Commissioner in person to ask for emergency cover.
Acting Borough Commander Jo Oakley has already confirmed in her interview with Inside Croydon that the police here asked for extra officers early on the Monday morning and that the Council supported the request.
What did our modern day political representatives do during the 10 daylight hours ahead of it all kicking off at West Croydon station?
Malcolm Wicks, Croydon North’s Labour MP, was away on holiday, although he managed to return from his vacation the day after the Croydon riots.
Talking to Inside Croydon, London Assembly Member and Metropolitan Police Authority Member Steve O’Connell seemed unaware of that council support. He said that the decision was a police operational one and that it was after things began to look bad mid-evening that he contacted a fellow London Assembly member who chairs the police authority enquiring after extra police.
The Council Leader, Mike Fisher, partially contradicting the police, says that it was not clear that Croydon was a key target during the day and that come mid-evening the Chief Executive called the chair of the police authority before that call was followed up by Steve O’Connell.
Our Borough Commander, Adrian Roberts, had been moved to London to direct the reserve of 2,000 officers. Fisher says a Territorial Support Unit was deployed to Croydon after a request was put in. The Borough Commander says they got to Croydon “on blue lights” but that it does take time to get here. Roberts avoided answering a question of when the reserve was actually deployed.
During last year’s General Election campaign, Gavin Barwell suggested that it helps to have your MP being from the party of government. So how did the Croydon Central MP use that advantage to the benefit of his constituents on 8/8?
He says that he “spoke to the Home Secretary’s office as it was obvious the Met didn’t have sufficient resources”. Leaving a message doesn’t seem that adequate especially as the MP recognised the seriousness of the situation. But then, like the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary Theresa May was on holiday.
I find just as concerning some of the remarks the MP made of his recollection of that evening, when he was returning from a meeting in South Norwood. “I saw several plumes of smoke rising from Croydon town centre. Given what’s happened elsewhere in London over the last two days, I feared the worst and sure enough when I got home and turned on the TV I saw the shocking pictures.
“Tomorrow morning, I’ll have to explain what has happened to my eight-year-old son. He will ask why. What can I tell him ?”
Is it right to use your children on the political field of play? And another question for Barwell is why did he drive straight on to Sanderstead to watch TV, rather than turn right and go to his own constituency that was at that very moment going up in flames?
Bottom of the pile is Richard Ottaway. When we asked his office what action Ottaway had taken on 8/8, they said, “Richard will call back if he wants to”. He has not called back.
So we have to rely on the unreliable Mail on Sunday, a sister paper of the Sadvertiser and a newspaper I sued for libel, and won. The Mail decried Richard for going sailing at Cowes in the aftermath of the riots, with Ottaway explaining, “I spent most of Tuesday on the ‘phone to my office, the police and the local authority. Most of the riots were not in my constituency.”
Ottaway should have shown better political judgement and will find the Nero reference in the Mail headline “As Croydon burned, local MP was with yacht at Cowes” unhelpful.
When the chips are down you must expect your elected representatives to deliver. Just leaving messages for people, being too tentative, not asking for help until too late and restricting those who you ask to junior regional politicians shows a disturbing lack of influence and falls a very long way short of what previous political incumbents would have achieved and done for Croydon.
Wednesday night’s meeting was held in the radical evangelical Christian groups’ Praise House. Residents were studious in prefacing their remarks with praise for the police. But they then asked where in heaven’s name were the police on 8/8?
A very polite lady, visibly straining to emphasise that she “supports the police 110 per cent” put the question: why had protection of people in high density housing Broad Green been sacrificed to protect big business in the town centre?
Borough Commander Roberts said that only Purley Way had been knowingly conceded to looters. He asserted that the police “could not have done a better job”.
The police had tried to hold two fronts at Station Road junction with attacks from three sides from Station Road, Tamworth Road and London Road, and at Surrey Street. It was just too much to do more than hold their ground.
You just have to ask: where was the police resource? Personal observation at West Croydon and YouTube videos show just a dozen brave officers holding the line at Station Road. There are almost 700 police officers on Croydon’s command. MPs say that the police were overwhelmingly outnumbered, but if you could have delivered half of the Croydon police complement to disperse less than 200 rioters at West Croydon when the trouble broke out, the outcome of the battle of Croydon could surely have been different.
Aim of rioters was “to kill a police officer”
Croydon’s senior police officer let slip the worry that troubled police officers that torrid night: that social media intelligence was that some in the mob “wanted to take the life of a police officer”. At the Prince of Wales’s visit there were police officers with traumatising “long-lasting injuries that would be with them for the rest of their careers”, Roberts reported.
The officers used were “not the most trained police officers”. At risk to themselves officers had gained 150 yards of London Road in case any people were in the fire in a pawnbroker’s shop. Officers could not hold further ground as manpower did not allow it.
Yet this simply raises further questions: if the police’s intelligence was indicating a serious threat against them, why were they on the streets with too few officers, some of whom were untrained and most were ill-equipped?
Among those at the meeting were two of the families who had been burnt out of their businesses and their homes, an Afghan couple who ran Londis and who may have seen worse here than in Kabul, and a Greek Cypriot dry cleaner. These were the people who had been advised to go to the Job Centre. A Jamaican woman said that the Job Centre staff had a tendency to act on auto-pilot and were not flexible enough to help these special cases.
A representative from the long-established Broad Green Residents’ Association said that urban design with promised shops below new flats had never been developed, leaving what the council’s chief executive recognised as dark areas on the main street that were like “broken teeth”.
Croydon big business criticised
Big business came off relatively lightly in the riot, with notable exceptions for Lidl’s in London Road and the shops on the Purley Way. But in the aftermath, residents weren’t so keen to leave big business alone. They wanted big chain stores to copy the likes of Carphone Warehouse, themselves a London-wide victim of looting, in helping small businesses. One store had given clothes, the senior manager of Allders had been seen in London Road being supportive, the Council’s contractors are offering free help make shops secure, and the Co-Op has given food.
Yet some landlords are allegedly still demanding rent on burnt out buildings. NCP refused to join the cheap parking days planned for Croydon this weekend.
And with many of the shops on London Road wrecked and closed, free parking seemed a pretty pointless initiative according to one trader.
The fire service were lauded as heroes. They had attended the Reeves fire without police cover but had been forced back by missiles. They say that despite another set of arson attacks, they are sure that they have the manpower to cope.
The meeting was good for Croydon and a credit to the Council for organising it. Another meeting takes place on Monday evening at the Oshwal Centre in London Road.
There is more healing to be done and more questions to be answered.
- Croydon 8/8: Council chief admits mistakes were made (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon was vulnerable after being short-changed for decades (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon police chief says her force was overstretched (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon 8/8: Local Tamils say “We have been doubly let down” (insidecroydon.com)