CROYDON COMMENTARY: Something strange is happening at the Town Hall. Commonsense is prevailing over political dogma. Some highly placed people’s jobs must be at stake, says Inside Croydon editor STEVEN DOWNES
Don’t panic! Croydon’s Captain Mainwaring is in charge!
Something strange is happening at Croydon Town Hall. The line of resistance has been breached.
Twice in the space of just a week, the Conservative group that controls the Town Hall has broken national party ranks, rejecting ConDem government policy. Quite forcibly, too, as it happens.
First, came the sensible and welcome decision to reject recommendations to ease planning restrictions for people wanting to build extensions on their homes. One of our Conservative councillors even called Eric Pickles’ scheme for a conservatory building boom as a “recipe for disaster”.
Yesterday, more tellingly, came a press release from the Ministry of Truth at Taberner House, rejecting the government’s cap on housing benefit. It was no coincidence that this riposte should appear less than 24 hours after Croydon had been comprehensively slaughtered over its shabby and shameful treatment of the homeless by BBC’s Newsnight, with housing minister Don Foster contradicting our council’s spokesman and accusing the borough of acting “doubly illegally”. Croydon’s failure to provide adequate and acceptable emergency housing was described as “an indictment of modern Britain”.
As noted yesterday, Croydon’s political chiefs were for once out of the picture. Where was our Brave Leader, Mike Fisher, to offer a robust defence of the council’s practices? Where was Cuddly Dudley Mead, the Tory cabinet’s housing spokesman? Somehow, they declined the opportunity to appear on national television, to put forward their policies to an audience of millions.
Instead, we saw the hired help (expensively hired, at £248,000 a year), chief executive Jon Rouse put forward a completely unconvincing case for Croydon.
But by yesterday, with the latest Croydon omnishambles all over the TV screens and newspapers, the council’s leadership came out with a different strategy:
Blame. Someone. Else.
And there is only one organisation which our Tory-led council can blame for the disastrous housing benefit policy: the Tory-led government.
Croydon’s Captain Mainwaring’s “Don’t panic!” message – safely delivered off camera, so that there could be no pesky TV journalist to ask impertinent questions – appeared in an official council press release. This stated: “The government is introducing weekly caps on housing benefit of between £250 for a one-bedroom flat and £400 for a four-bedroom property.
“But Councillor Dudley Mead says this will price families on benefits out of the private sector and increase homelessness, piling more pressure on local authorities, especially in London.”
Which ought to have been obvious to anyone on first reading of the ill-considered proposals.
Mead, the deputy leader of a Conservative-run council, was directly quoted as saying: “Plans to introduce caps on local housing allowance rates will mean less private rented accommodation is available to people on benefits, particularly in London.
“Croydon and other London boroughs are a special case. They need help. We should have a regional cap based on specific circumstances.”
Given that, it is intriguing to recall another statement, made by a local politician less than six months ago:
“You won’t find me criticising the government for trying to reduce the housing benefit bill and I won’t be ranting, raving or calling it a crisis.
“No doubt I’ll be accused of complacency but we’re going to deal with this in a calm and professional manner. At the end of the day I can’t magic up new housing.”
This was said in all seriousness by Dudley Mead, Croydon’s Captain Mainwaring, as recently as May this year. On that occasion, Mead also said, “In reality there’s nothing to be overly concerned about. We always knew this was going to be the case.”
So what has changed in the five months since there was “nothing to be overly concerned about” (apart from Newsnight)?
In a word, nothing. Mead and his chums have been caught out. Again.
Mead’s May statement was dripping with complacency, so he was right in that respect. But what he said then was also deceitful. Because as the housing chief on the council, by May this year Mead ought to have been well aware that he was already pouring away an average of £200,000 per month of this year to pay a single hotel group for providing sub-standard accommodation for just some of the borough’s ever-growing number of homeless families.
Yesterday’s statement from Mead represented a massive U-turn, forced by the glare of publicity. It is the latest signal that those in control of Croydon Council are undergoing some serious reality checks. In some ways, they really are panicking, and with good reason.
We are now closing in on 18 months to the next local elections. Opinion poll results over the past year, backed up by the real votes cast in May’s GLA election, indicate that there will be profound changes in the make-up of Croydon Town Hall.
It is not only Croydon’s Conservative councillors who are seeking to “re-position” themselves, to try to distance themselves from so willingly applying the policies of a government that has handed out tax cuts to millionaires while cutting services from the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
So much of the ConDem government’s cuts have had to be implemented at local council level that Call Me Dave Cameron’s party activists are in fear of electoral meltdown across the country in May 2014, with hundreds of local councillors anxious that they will lose their five-figure council allowances (Dudley and his wife, Margaret, for instance, between them collect in the region of £90,000 per year from Croydon Council; not bad for a retired couple’s pension fund).
Some of that local activist anxiety may even express itself at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham this week.
And in Croydon, any political changes in the 2014 elections may also be reflected in the personnel on the upper floors of Taberner House.
It would be a delicious irony were the man behind Croydon’s secretive and speculative £450 million urban regeneration vehicle never to get to settle into the chief executive’s suite in the shiny new glass palace of a council HQ.
In any other organisation, Jon Rouse, the chief executive who left his CEO’s office in mid-afternoon on August 8, 2011 for a non-urgent meeting despite reports of impending civil disturbances, would have already left the council because of his performance on that day alone.
But Rouse escaped summary dismissal because his political masters were equally implicated in their mismanagement of Croydon’s greatest crisis since the Blitz. Where were they for the security meeting on 8/8?
Croydon Council’s political leadership under Tory “leader” Mike Fisher has been so feeble that Rouse has been able to develop his position to that of an unelected executive mayor. So if Rouse had been shown the door after 8/8, Fisher and some of his closest acolytes could not have been far behind.
The council has demonstrated serial incompetences – failing to plan properly for school place shortages; failure to provide adequate social housing; failing to help Allders with business rate relief; failing to handle Nestle effectively to keep them based in the borough; failing to secure proper undertakings from Menta over the £20 million “bridge to nowhere”, the list just keeps going on and on…
All of which ought to make Rouse’s position entirely untenable. These blunders and misjudgements have cost the people of Croydon millions of pounds, and thousands of people, in the public and private sectors, have lost their jobs.
Attempts by Fisher and Mead to blame national politicians at Westminster for Croydon’s housing crisis just won’t wash. The buck stops at Croydon Town Hall and in Taberner House.
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