ANDREW PELLING gets some conflicting answers from candidates at Croydon and Sutton election hustings
Steve O’Connell, the Conservatives’ London Assembly candidate, shocked a Croydon election hustings meeting when he told them that he does not care who runs public libraries.
The London Assembly member for Croydon and Sutton, who in his spare time is also the Conservative parliamentary spokesman for Sutton as well as trying to represent Kenley ward, also has the additional job of being Croydon Council Cabinet Member for Performance and Transformation. His comments to the National Union of Teachers’ hustings suggests a particularly laissez-faire attitude to the performance quality of Croydon’s library provision.
“I don’t care who runs libraries,” O’Connell said. “It doesn’t matter who runs them. All that matters is that they are kept open.”
So nothing there about the Big Society and community volunteers running their local library, as supported by Gavin Barwell MP, who has encouraged library volunteers to apply to him. Just indifference from O’Connell.
O’Connell’s remarks came at one of two contrasting hustings. One run by Croydon Federation of Small Businesses at the Croydon Park Hotel, the other by Croydon NUT and staged at Ruskin House, the home of the disparate parts that make up the local Labour and trades union movement.
And O’Connell didn’t say this to win favour at the business event. It was at Ruskin House that his libraries gem was aired. The trade unionists were left less than amused. Maybe O’Connell, Britain’s most overpaid local councillor, considered that there were not many votes to be won among this audience, where many attendees regarded Tony Blair as a Neo-Con.
The small business people were not happy, though, either. They felt aggrieved about public sector contracts that, in their mind, had by-passed local businesses and were given to large corporates. Abigail Lock, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the London Assembly, and Green candidate Gordon Ross said that they would argue for contracts suitable to smaller businesses. O’Connell said he would also support such an approach.
The Greens’ Ross felt that locally based contracts by the public sector kept money flowing through local economies.
O’Connell was pressed at both hustings about his extensive responsibilities. His response was that if you wanted things done, you should ask a busy person, and that if the electorate felt that he was capable of taking on a number of jobs that was a judgement that should be respected.
Labour’s Louisa Woodley said that she would not stand for Croydon Council if elected to the Assembly. The London Assembly salary on its own was enough to live on, felt Woodley.
Keen to avoid links with his party’s poor showings in national opinion polls, O’Connell told the sisters and brothers of the Labour movement that this was a local election, not a national one. Oddly, at a time of an historic ConDem coalition, O’Connell said that “we are stuck with a Tory government” and that it would be best to have a Tory Mayor talking with a Tory government both, in turn, supporting successful banks that would better serve an improving economy.
O’Connell conceded that he was worried about the review of local hospitals for closure, with A&E units at Mayday or St Helier under threat of closure, but he claimed that this did not fall under his remit.
A strong complaint was made also at the NUT meeting about the growing crisis in school place provision. O’Connell contradicted Boris Johnson’s expressed desire for the London Mayor to have an oversight over education, saying that Johnson did not want to do this.
Much as O’Connell found his trade union audience tricky to deal with, Ross found that his support for London-wide road pricing angered his business audience, who bemoaned the prospect of yet another financial burden. Ross hoped that having a business mentoring scheme and releasing public land for building on would boost business.
O’Connell, too, found himself running into difficulty with business in the form of builders who disliked his keenness to resist new housing that his voters disliked. O’Connell wanted more affordable housing but also wanted local people to be able to stop development.
O’Connell would not be drawn on the decision to turn down an Enterprise Zone for Croydon that was offered by Mayor Johnson and that would have awarded Croydon small businesses large discounts on their business rates. O’Connell felt that this was a political issue and that, thus, this should not be discussed at the election hustings.
O’Connell felt at one with business people as he said that he goes home to the business concerns of his wife at the kitchen table. He said that £221 million would be found to support small business from monies that had been intended to be spent by the London Development Agency. Lock trumped this with an offer of £ 653 million, although she admitted that this would be money transferred from an already existing BIS department budget for London.
Labour presented itself as having business credentials, saying that extra police being put back into Croydon would protect businesses and that fare cuts would fund spending in the shops from the increased disposable income. The £71 million Local Regeneration monies that had been spent on the ground with businesses in district centres when Labour was in power locally and nationally was mentioned as a positive by Labour’s candidate.
But Woodley and UKIP’s Winston McKenzie both criticised how this money had been wasted on a bureaucratic business support unit set up by the Conservatives on Croydon Council and then axed entirely by the Conservative government.
- Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
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