Costly council Question Times offer few answers

Real local accountability, or a costly box-ticking exercise? Our roaming correspondent SOUTHSIDER went to the latest Croydon Question Time event this week for this report

Earlier this year, Croydon Council – motto “Proud to Serve” – felt that £60,000 a year was too high a price to pay for the local democracy provided by community meetings organised by the Neighbourhood Partnerships. Needless costs have to be cut at every turn, apparently.

As it quietly drew up its plans to close them down, our council – using its Ministry of Truth publicity department, which it runs at a cost of more than £600,000 per year – rubbished the Partnerships for attracting too few people, who it determined were too old. Our council was adamant it could do a much better job with a “new” Question Time format.

These Question Times were billed as not only being much cheaper, but that they would pull in a much bigger and younger, more representative audience.

There have now been six Question Time meetings staged around the borough. Unlike the old Partnership meetings, our council hasn’t stinted on publicising these new stunts, even spending money it says it hasn’t got on glossy, coloured (albeit poorly edited) leaflets being distributed through letterboxes around the borough. The latest meeting was held at Purley’s United Reformed Church on Tuesday night.

“These public meetings are open to anybody who wants to come and talk directly to council decision-makers about any issue affecting their area,” the council-funded propaganda states.

Under the old Neighbourhood Partnership format, the Purley meetings usually attracted about 60 residents. This week’s exciting, new, council-funded Question Time event was attended by at least nine council staff, three from the police and three other staff servicing the meeting, although unlike earlier Question Times, the two-man camera crew (wonder how much that must cost to book in the evenings? And the digital edit costs?) wasn’t in evidence.

The huge, expensive-looking specially commissioned backdrop hoarding was there again to frame the panel of speakers, who consisted of a chairman, a senior Croydon policeman, Croydon’s £248,000 pa CEO Jon Rouse and four Conservative councillors, members of the council’s grandly titled “cabinet” that had approved the idea of the Question Time events. The audience also included three local councillors.

So the total count of council staff and politicos was a hefty 24 bodies.

Public attendees? Fewer than 30 souls.

Now, it is impossible to make the next estimate with any great exactitude, but it very much looked like the exciting and vibrant Question Time format had managed to attract an audience of ordinary Croydon residents whose average age was even older than the discarded Partnership meetings.

Absent: Ottaway

As ever, the absentee local MP – Cap’n Ottaway – couldn’t be bothered to turn up to hear what his constituents had to say.

You might have thought that with the riots and the boundary changes to his seat, that the Cap’n might have ventured away from the rustic delights of Bletchingly. But if your sailing is of higher importance than helping the people of Croydon in the immediate aftermath of the riots, then perhaps  a community meeting can be safely ignored. Or maybe there just weren’t enough expenses in it for Ottaway?

Under the old Partnership format, the meetings were chaired by a highly respected local man who knows the area inside out. The Purley meeting was chaired by someone called Joe Rowe, who was completely unknown to the audience. He certainly was no David Dimbleby. His lack of local knowledge showed.

But his presence did give some amusement to his audience. Rowe is chairman of Croydon BID – the umbrella body for the big retailers in central Croydon, many of whom somehow escaped the riots pretty much unscathed.

Unless BID is very shy of publicity, it appears to have donated nothing to less fortunate neighbours, the burnt out traders in the London Road and Reeves’ Corner. There was therefore a big money sweepstake in the back row of the meeting as to whether anyone would dare challenge BID’s chairman on its meanness. A sort of “Say it ain’t so, Joe” moment. But the good folk of Purley are a kindly lot and Rowe’s blushes were spared.

The problem with public meetings is that the public can ask awkward questions. But Croydon’s politicos have a well-honed plan to spare themselves embarrassment. It goes something like this:

Step 1: start the meeting late.

Step 2: give a really long introductory preamble – the longer and more irrelevant to local issues, the better (Cuddly Dudley Mead showed great mastery of this at the recent Coulsdon meeting, but Tim Pollard is learning at the master’s knee).

Step 3: Guillotine the meeting exactly at the allotted time – even if many residents still want to put questions.

By judicious use of waffling, the cabinet members – who are each receiving more than £45,000 of Council Tax-payers’ money each year in “allowances” – can lessen the danger of embarrassment from the remaining time available for those few members of the public who bother to turn up.

Absent: Fisher

This week’s panel was a strange beast. Many wonder if council leader Mike Fisher is pulling all the strings. It often seems that his unfortunate cabinet minions end up with the flak for decisions with which they privately seem uncomfortable. But Fisher seems to be a rare beast at these Question Times. As with some of the previous meetings, he didn’t attend at Purley. So much for the council claim of “Talk to Croydon’s decision makers”.

In the absence of the “organ grinder”, the “monkeys” contribution primarily came from two sources. There was the super smooth Steve O’Connell, and council deputy leader  Pollard, who said he felt the audience’s pain at Croydon’s many cuts.

In complete contrast to the soothing words of Pollard and O’Connell, Phil “Two Permits” Thomas took it as akin to a personal insult when any attendee dared broach the topics of rampant fly tipping or the ending of the collection of green waste.

They say all politics is local. A feature of previous Question Times has been the public’s focus on intensely local issues such as bus route changes, fly tipping and local road congestion. Hence, it is true to say that at previous meetings, there has been a mismatch between the micro issues raised and the high-powered (used in the loosest sense) panel.
This week’s meeting was unusual in that many questions concerned the overall borough. Of the questions raised, perhaps the most interesting was whether our council was doing enough to help the riot and arson victims. Jon Rouse’s answer was disingenuous.

He referred to the case of Okay Niyazi, first highlighted by Inside Croydon. Rouse claimed that as Okay was “traumatised”, it was making it hard for our council to help him. But surely the real reason that Okay is traumatised is that the equipment in his burnt out dry cleaning shop will cost £90,000 to replace, but our council (current reserves: £65 million) has only given him a £1,000 cash grant and a £1,000 interest-free loan to help re-establish his business.

Okay will eventually receive some compensation – almost certainly not the full amount of his losses – under the Riot Act. But let’s make no bones about it, he will have to do triple somersaults on form filling and paperwork to obtain this compensation. And the whole process could take months, if not years, all the while with Okay forced on to the dole because his business was torched.

The lack of honesty was a theme in the night’s responses. Time and again, bad council decisions were blamed on government cuts to Croydon’s budget. There was a real sense that this meeting was all about “ticking the consultation box” and PR for the council’s position, rather than making any real effort to listen to the public.

The nine council staff were in attendance to answer specific questions on the borough’s services. It is claimed that as these staff are on salaries, no overtime is payable to them for this out-of-hours duty. Even if this is true, it’s a very significant time input from these staff – which has a value. The sad thing is that very few attendees spoke with them either before or after the meeting.

There is almost certainly an overtime implication for the three police officers who attended the full meeting. Under the old Partnership format, the police only attended for their allotted “slot”, which all suggests that this new, “cost-cutting” format is – as with so many of Croydon’s recent initiatives – going to turn out to be more expensive.

Previous Question Times used an outside firm of specialist “facilitators” – which don’t come cheap. It was unclear from Purley’s meeting whether an expensive outside firm was still being used or whether it was council staff. All in all, when the value of all of the time input is fairly costed, it seems that the economic cost of the new Question Times is a multiple of the old Partnership format.

We now live in a digital world. A great set of minutes, easily located on our council’s website, giving an honest account of each meeting would be a good distribution channel. But previous meetings have been written up in a way that would not have looked out of place in a Stalin-era Pravda.

“Is that really the meeting I attended?” one person asked when they were shown the minutes of a previous meeting.

All in all, a neat trick by our Proud to Serve council. An audience halved in size, at likely double the cost, and all for a poorer product.

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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
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