Boris promises to end Croydon’s planning paralysis

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Former Assembly Member and board member of the London Development Agency ANDREW PELLING was surprised by the commitment to Croydon shown by London Mayor Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson: has four years to turn his words on Croydon into actions

At the first Mayor’s Questions of this session at City Hall yesterday, the re-elected Boris Johnson staked his reputation on seeing Croydon re-developed by 2016.

It’s unusual for politicians to be so specific about how they should be judged. Knowing the unhappy history since 1994 of Croydon planning, the Mayor may be taking a big risk with such a bold hostage to fortune. Maybe he’s already decided he’ll not be running for Mayor in 2016, with a bigger job beckoning on the other side of the Thames.

Ken Livingstone was usually the one to make bold promises. He impressed in his first term of office by stating to the very first meeting of the London Assembly that he would be judged by the success or failure of the Congestion Charge.

Most politicians when pressed on how they would want to be judged at the end of a four-year term of office would be tempted to go for something nebulous. Something along the lines of overall happiness, celebrating diversity and London being at peace with itself would have been the response from a weaker politician. Instead, Livingstone asked people to judge him on what was then a very controversial policy indeed.

So it was interesting to see yesterday whether a newly re-elected Mayor would say anything explicit about how his success should be judged over the next four years.

The Mayor faces an Assembly whose culture is changed by the Conservatives coming down to nine seats from 11 out of the 25 AMs, and Labour going up to 12 from eight seats. Nine seats is just enough to get the Mayor’s Budget through the Assembly – the Mayor needs only a blocking minority of one-third of Assembly members, but the atmosphere in the chamber is changed by such a large phalanx of Labour members who are in alliance with the two Greens and the two LibDems.

Thus the Mayor was keen to dismiss the Assembly as a place of “rancour”. Blocking Boris is blocking London was the Mayor’s message. He asked that the Assembly in future exhibit “the minimum of recrimination, rancour and barracking”, which is code for don’t ask me any awkward questions – fitting from the man who in his first four years as Mayor stubbornly avoided attending briefings for City Hall journalists, and refused to speak to BBC London’s political editor.

The Mayor’s nine-point plan for London that he set out during the election was very vague but Boris was keen to say that his “No1 priority” was “getting Londoners into jobs”. He spoke of a “costed programme to deliver 200,000 jobs over the four years” through “building a huge number of affordable homes” and investing in transport infrastructure.

Boris’s 200,000 jobs is in fact 50,000 jobs counted four times

A new LibDem member, Stephen Knight, did manage both to show that the Assembly is about asking challenging questions, and to prove that this “costed programme” actually creates just an extra 50,000 jobs, but all counted and recounted in each of the four years, and thus calculated as 50,000 jobs x 4.

Steve O’Connell: asking for more jobs to Croydon

But at least Johnson was asking to be judged by this specific figure of creating 200,000 extra jobs. This was progress, even if pinning down the number of extra jobs created by the London Development Agency was very difficult when it existed.

What’s more, Johnson ended by adding an important caveat for judging the success on jobs relating to Croydon.

Steve O’Connell, AM for Sutton and Croydon, asked whether Croydon would benefit from these extra jobs when “many of these projects are towards the east and towards the centre” of London. London government is, almost by definition, a conspiracy against south London, with the strategic demands of the underprivileged east, the demands of transport to London’s main airport in the west and the need to keep central London working as the main wealth creator. O’Connell’s concerns seemed well-placed.

But from Boris there came a very clear promise on which voters should judge the Conservative Mayoralty, presumably in the period “after Boris”, if he is back in the Commons by 2015.

Mayor Johnson said: “After the events of last year, after the riots, it is vital that we sell Croydon around the world as a place of fantastic opportunity.”

Of Croydon he added, “It is a place that will repay investment many times over in the next few years.”

It was not clear whether this multiple return was a reference to public or private sector investment and certainly the Mayor’s expectations of the positive effects of the £23 million fund to be spent in Croydon seemed overblown when it was much less than Croydon was receiving in regeneration money from the previous Labour government, money which would have been given to small enterprises if Croydon Council had accepted an Enterprise Zone. So far, Boris’s riot money in Croydon has only been spent on wasteful “marketing” and “re-branding”, and on projects to build improved pedestrian crossings at Wellesley Road.

The Mayor spoke of private retail development prospects. Grandly, Johnson gave a promise that, “I will consider the next four years a failure if we have not sorted out this issue in Croydon. We have got to get these developments moving.”

So good news that the Mayor will see himself a failure if he does not break Croydon’s development deadlock. He has set himself an important task and he may not fully appreciate the ability of local planners and councillors to muck things up.

Who could Whitgift governor Barwell have had in mind when he said people had been “working behind the scenes”?

The entrenched battle between the Whitgift Foundation and Hammerson was not helped by the local MP childishly running ahead of the issue implying that he personally had solved Croydon’s problems by facilitating the Whitgift deal to work exclusively with the Australian company, Westfield, before the owners of 75 per cent of the leasehold of the Whitgift Centre had been consulted.

Croydon’s local councillors have guarded jealously their right to drive their own planning controls – they rejected the Mayor’s generous offer of an Enterprise Zone because it would have meant losing some of their own local planning powers. The last time this behaviour was seen in the capital was when far-left recidivists in east London fought the London Docklands Development Corporation and the Conservative government in the 1980s.

Perhaps Mayor Johnson’s not aware, either, of the nihilistic destruction of the cultural offer in Croydon, with the most recent hacking away at the arts being the grant cut to the Warehouse leading to its theatre closing – the bar is still open. A good cultural offer would attract developers, which was why Stanhope had earmarked £3.5 million for a new performance space within their Ruskin Square plans.

The Mayor talked of “a massive opportunity” in Croydon. Let’s hope local councillors don’t get in the way of an aspiration for recovery that residents in a declining town desperately want to see.

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