This evening, Croydon Town Hall is the venue for one of those infrequent events for which our 70 councillors cost us £6.6 million – a council meeting.
But if you are not able to be there, don’t expect to be able to follow proceedings, in this digital age, online. And don’t hold your breath for a transcript of the discussions to be provided by the council promptly after the event. Even the public’s written questions to the council, and the answers provided by the publicly funded councillors, are not made available to opposition councillors until a few minutes before the meeting is due to begin.
In many ways, the Conservative group which controls our council has gone out of its way to drag Croydon back into the 19th century, never mind embracing the advantages of the 21st century, when it comes to residents keeping informed of what their political representatives are deciding on their behalf.
The opening debate tonight starts half an hour earlier than usual, at 6pm, to consider the posthumous awarding the Freedom of the Borough to the late Malcolm Wicks. This will likely be a more civilised exchange of views than most of the evening’s debates, which will include the privatisation of Croydon’s libraries using a property development company which submitted the worst bid in a competitive tendering process.
Croydon Council meetings are ugly, brutish, bickering affairs, made worse this year by Mayor Eddy Arram chairing the meetings in a blatantly biased manner. The calibre of the debate is poor.
Unlike other London boroughs, the turnover of councillors in Croydon is slow; the modernisation of the council members, to a larger, graduate element, and thus higher educated council seen elsewhere, has not come to Croydon.
Under the previous administration, these meetings used to be open to scrutiny through webcasts, which were hardly cutting edge technology even a decade ago.
Perhaps to save the councillors’ blushes these webcasts were axed at the saving of £32,000 a year – hardly a major dent in the council’s budget when you consider the decision to spend £250,000 on the libraries tender process, or the £900,000 to furnish the shiny new council HQ being finished on CostUsAMint Walk.
Indeed, £32,000 is less even than the annual amount paid in “allowances” to each one of the 10 members of the front bench in council leader’s Mike Fisher’s “top team”. In that context, it seems a small price to pay for democracy.
The Tory-run council, which bans all recordings of its meetings, did not think of looking at cheaper means of broadcast, or bringing in a commercial provider who might want to record the meetings for news purposes. For a council so keen to forge “commercial partnerships” at every opportunity, it appears that they missed a trick here, since some digital stations might even have offered to record council meetings for nothing more than the value of the editorial content gleaned.
In next door Sutton, the Liberal Democrat-led council spends a mere £8,290 for the annual cost of putting the sound recordings of 37 council meetings on the council’s website. That’s for full council meetings and local committee neighbourhood meetings.
“It seems a small price to pay for the opportunity for residents to have improved access to council meetings,” Ruth Dombey, the Sutton Council leader, told Inside Croydon.
“We can’t expect them all to come along to the meetings (they’re often in the evening and people have other commitments) so we want to ensure that they have the opportunity to hear the discussions in other ways.”
Of course, it is entirely possible that cost is not the real reason that Croydon’s Conservatives have back-tracked over council transparency. Maybe they just don’t want their conduct to be seen by too many people.
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- £30m libraries privatisation could be sent for judicial review (insidecroydon.com)