Our man in the public gallery, WALTER CONXITE, found little evidence of Croydon’s “Proud to Serve” slogan being put into practice at a Town Hall meeting last week
The truly depressing thing about the way in which our council is run is the apparent complete disregard for the people of Croydon that is shown, almost daily, by many of its here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians, who dutifully collect their five-figure council “allowances”, and then equally dutifully toe their party line.
When Ben Gummer, the Conservative MP for Ipswich, told a fringe meeting at the Tory party conference this week that many local councils were “self-governing oligarchies of mediocre people”, he could have been speaking about Croydon.
“I sometimes wonder if the council knows it is there to serve the people…” Gummer said of his own town council in East Anglia.
Similar short-comings can be found here in south London, where some councillors, who collect “allowances” – what is called pay in “ordinary” people’s language – of more than £40,000 per year, yet regard Council Tax-payers with such undisguised contempt that the word “pleb” can never be far from their lips.
Last Friday’s farce of a council scrutiny meeting at Croydon Town Hall to discuss the disgracefully partisan, petty and frankly vindictive treatment of Upper Norwood Library by the Conservative group that controls our council was the latest case in point.
Earlier in the day, I had asked a senior member of the opposition Labour group which had called in the decision to cut funding to the library to a point where its very existence is placed under threat, how they thought the meeting would go.
In a matter-of-fact sort of way, they said, “Oh, I suppose a number of people, councillors and members of the public, will stand up and make well-thought-through arguments, with all the figures carefully prepared.
“And then the other lot will all stick up their hands as they’ve been told to.”
Truly depressing, because that’s exactly what happened. Apart from actually bothering to even have a vote.
No one is suggesting for one moment that the Labour group, whether in opposition or when it was in control of Croydon Town Hall, does not vote on party lines.
But what Friday night’s meeting demonstrated, at some length, was that the “democratic processes” of Croydon Council do not work. They certainly do not work in the best interests of the people of Croydon. They are a waste of time and our money.
Friday’s meeting was nothing more than a grim pantomime, with the leading players all acting to a badly written script, as predictable as EastEnders, with the unhappy outcome pre-determined by the Tory majority on the scrutiny committee. Nothing said in the meeting would have changed the way that they were determined for it to conclude.
To compound all this, though, was the dismissive attitudes towards the public demonstrated by the scrutiny committee chairman, Steve Hollands.
As a councillor for Kenley, it is unlikely that Hollands has had much call to travel to Crystal Palace to use Upper Norwood Library of late. We suggest that he rushes off to his local library in the leafy southern suburbs of the borough as soon as possible, obtain a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, and read it as a matter of some urgency.
Pompous, patronising and at times positively nasty towards the “ordinary” people in the gallery, is Hollands the true face of the Croydon Conservatives?
On the night, the committee heard strong defences of the need and demand for proper library funding from Mandy Sciberras, from the Gipsy Hill Residents Association, and John Payne of the Crystal Palace Community Association. Robert Gibson, from the Upper Norwood Library Campaign, said, “We hope the council will sit down with us in the spirit of localism and work with us. This campaign is not going to go away.”
They all might have got more response if they’d spoken directly to a brick wall.
The Conservatives’ “defence” of their funding cut for the jointly run library is that they have determined that Upper Norwood needs £250,000 per year to operate. Since Lambeth is providing £170,000, then Croydon reckons it can get away with fronting up just £75,000 for this supposedly jointly run library.
This, at least, was the argument put forward by Tim Pollard, the senior Conservative councillor who has been in charge of the borough’s libraries for the past six months.
John Wentworth, a Labour councillor from Upper Norwood ward, refuted this forcibly. “If next year Lambeth was to cut their grant for the library to £70,000, would Croydon come up with the other £170,000? I doubt that very much indeed,” Wentworth said.
“No other library in Croydon has been treated in this way. I don’t understand why you consider it reasonable for one library to be treated so unfairly.
“Of all the libraries and services I see in this borough that’s the one institution that stands the best chance of having a community trust and community involvement. People are passionate about it. They have the skills and confidence to run that library but it has to be given a fair chance.
“£75,000 doesn’t give that a fair chance. I don’t believe this is a party political issue,” Wentworth said, somewhat curiously given the clear party political dividing lines.
Pollard has spent his time on libraries trying to drag something from the wreckage of the previous two years under the direction of his cabinet predecessor on this brief, Sara “Book Token” Bashford. Going against the wishes of local residents and handing over the borough’s libraries to Wandsworth or Laings to run (and run-down, or at least sell-off the property portfolio) will soon solve that mess for Pollard.
The joint-funding nature of Upper Norwood Library means that it is not part of that privatisation carve-up.
Pollard has two clear options for UNJL: honour the long-standing joint agreement, provide proper funding, and so reverse the previous years’ arrogant and partisan policy; or provide so little funding that it kills off a century-old institution which his own council acknowledges 86 per cent of local people want to be maintained.
It looks like he has determined to pursue the latter course.
“If the cabinet are serious about giving this library a fair chance they will reverse this decision to secure this library’s future,” Wentworth pleaded, but it was all in vain.
Pollard claims that Upper Norwood library gets special treatment, with twice the staffing levels of libraries in the rest of Croydon. “I don’t want to be political,” he said, somewhat disingenuously, because this was all about political dogma and an apparent deep loathing of anything involving publicly funded services, “but we’re vastly more efficient.
“Is it fair across the borough to say one area will be funded to operate in a completely different way? That doesn’t make sense,” Pollard said.
A splenetic column in the News From Crystal Palace site, which carefully logged much of what was said at the meeting and which has been relied upon here, makes the important point about the divisive nature of the way Croydon’s Tories are running, and ruining, our borough:
“This is one to use against Croydon in the future,” they said of Pollard’s fair distribution principle. “Croydon want to build 700 new homes in the Upper Norwood area. So if Upper Norwood gets 700 (which we haven’t got room for) then so too will Sanderstead, Selsdon and Ballards and other Tory-held council wards. I mean, after all, why should one area be treated in a different way?”
By Pollard’s own logic of equivalent treatment of all the borough’s libraries, Croydon in any case ought to be providing considerably more than the £75,000 for Upper Norwood being put up for next year, when it is also insisting that a community trust takes over its management from April 1.
Effectively, Pollard explained to the meeting that Upper Norwood is a victim not of any shortcomings of its own, but because Croydon Council itself is unable to account accurately for broader running costs that are incurred elsewhere in the council. This is the same stick that is being used to beat most of Croydon’s frontline library services, as they carry the burden of their “share” of expensive and poorly managed IT and other back-office admin systems in Taberner House.
More in hope than expectation
Steve Hollands’s running of the scrutiny meeting was described by one attendee as weak and vacillating, entirely subject to his party’s instructions. Maybe Hollands needs to pay closer attention in future, because he opted to contradict his group’s deputy leader by saying, “In my view how much it costs to run Selsdon library, how much it costs to run Norbury library, doesn’t come into it.” Really?
The whole, shabby, party-biased display was frustrating the large gathering of observers in the gallery at the Town Hall. “Show some integrity,” someone called out.
“Don’t just serve your party – serve the people,” someone else advised, more in hope than expectation.
Having made snide swipes at other Labour councillors, Hollands even threatened to have Upper Norwood’s Pat Ryan removed if he “continued to disrupt the meeting”. According to the News from Crystal Palace columnist, they heard Ryan make one intervention, of five words, in the whole meeting.
But it was Hollands’ attitude towards the people who in effect pay his wages – he gets £29,077 a year for being the patsy chairman of the scrutiny committee, on top of his £11,239 “allowance” for the privilege of being a councillor – which many present found particularly distasteful.
Short of addressing the public in the gallery as “plebs”, Hollands could not have been more contemptuous of the people he is supposed to serve.
Back in 2006, when the Conservatives re-took control of Croydon Town Hall, Hollands infamously declared, “We’re the rulers now”. A close colleague of Croydon’s Tory leader Mike Fisher, with whom he was first elected to the council in 1990 for the now defunct Beulah ward, Hollands has some history with the Upper Norwood library.
Hollands was on the UNJL committee when the decision was taken to appoint councillors from Lambeth and Croydon to the committee – the very decision which has ultimately been used by Croydon to take a 100-year-old agreement beyond breaking point, prompting this latest meeting.
After more than three hours last Friday, and clearly irritated by the restless gallery, Hollands drew the meeting to a close, refusing even to take a vote on the proposal put forward by the Labour group.
“The recommendation has been lost,” he said. “The gallery has caused that,” said Hollands.
One of the public in the gallery shouted something which was audible, but not distinct. “Would you leave?” said Hollands, clearly put out by such an affront.
The chairman’s comment drew only defiance. “No,” came the answer from someone who was clearly determined to witness democracy not in action.
Hollands was not to be denied the final word. “That’s exactly the sort of behaviour I would have expected,” he said.
It was as if he onlyjust stopped short of using the word “pleb”.
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