CROYDON COMMENTARY: Council meetings at the Town Hall are poor theatre and rarely achieve much, despite considerable public cost, as this week’s emergency library meeting demonstrated, says STEVEN DOWNES
What do they ever achieve?
To misappropriate Edwin Starr’s lyric, the only conclusion is: “absolutely nothing”.
I say this after Monday’s “emergency” council meeting, called by the opposition Labour group to contest the privatisation of the borough’s public libraries. Once more, it was a matter of far more heat than light being generated around the subject of the £30 million, eight-year, publicly funded contract which may, or may not, be handed on a platter to John Laing Integrated Services.
The concept of a forum-style chamber, invented by the ancient Greeks and honed over recent centuries by the Mother of Parliaments, is that proposals are discussed, their flaws exposed and – hopefully – amended for the benefit of the whole community. It is the model that most Town Hall council chambers have been based upon.
But in Croydon in 2013, the Town Hall chamber is never used to develop better policies for residents. All too often, the Town Hall is simply a venue for a grandstanding sort of puerile political ping-pong, one side making its statement, being roundly booed by the other. It is the sort of conduct that is so widely despised by “ordinary”, and “non-political” people (there’s an argument that none of us are “ordinary”, nor “non-political”, but we’d need to return to that at some other time).
It is definitely the sort of conduct which persuades “ordinary” people to be “non-political”.
Take Monday night as an example. Senior councillors from one side, let’s call them “the reds”, stood up and delivered carefully prepared speeches, and in turn, councillors from the other side, “the blues”, then read out their speeches and their prepared jokes and gags.
Then, all those on the red side went and voted for the emergency motion, and all those on the blue side voted against it. And that was it. Nothing changed, nothing was improved, nothing was learned.
No questions about the detail of the library privatisation deal were asked – and there’s plenty of questions that need answering. No one from the ruling Conservative group was held accountable for the extraordinary mishandling of the contract tendering process that had led to the emergency meeting being called.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that this meeting was an example of an absolute lack of imagination among Croydon’s 70 ward councillors. At least at Westminster, there’s the occasional “maverick” MP, who dares defy his party whip, maybe a few who abstain on a vote out of their personal conscience, or even some “rebels”, who vote against their party line because they hold a conviction that it is just wrong.
But not at Croydon Council. We think that the last time that a councillor, Tory or Labour, demonstrated that they had a mind of their own and voted against their party line might have been 12 years ago. Since then, barely as much as an abstention.
Are all our councillors really so craven, so devoid of conscience or conviction?
Last month, David Callam suggested on this site that 70 ward councillors is far too many in Croydon. In effect, we, the Council Tax-payers, are paying nearly £600,000 per year for “allowances” to the 50 lobby-fodder non-cabinet members. The 20 cabinet and shadow cabinet members between them probably draw even more in allowances.
It is informative that, for all the cost-cutting and “economies” passed through Croydon Town Hall in the last three to four years, one economy that has never been suggested, from either side of the council chamber, is the radical cutting of councillors’ allowances and benefits. Indeed, shortly after retaining control of the council at the 2010 elections, Mike Fisher’s Tory group – which has reduced services to the public while increasing Council Tax – voted unanimously to increase their own council allowances. Funny that.
It is little wonder that the “ordinary” and “non-political” people of Croydon feel that they are taken for granted, especially by their often-times self-serving local politicians. Apart from asking for our votes once every four years, where is the real accountability? The transparency and openness?
Granted, there are, even in Croydon, some very hard-working ward councillors, Conservative as well as Labour, who are on call for their local residents at regular surgeries and throughout the week. Given that most councillors are part-timers, with full-time jobs elsewhere, this is a considerable commitment to their community, and deserving of respect.
But there are others, too many, who use Croydon Town Hall for their self-aggrandisement, their own, petty, personal political ambitions and, let’s face it, for an Arfur Daley-style nice little earner.
MONDAY’S MEETING was also a demonstration of how even the conduct of Town Hall politics in Croydon is, frankly, just not very good. Boiled down, the emergency meeting was a facile waste of time and money, and the Labour group, as the instigators of it, need to take responsibility for this.
The motion, put forward by the opposition’s spokesman on culture and libraries, Timothy Godfrey (we are grateful to Councillor Godfrey for posting it on a comment on the site here), smacked of bad politics and lazy politics.
Bad politics? At the end of last year, the decision to award the libraries contract to John Laing Integrated Services was referred to the council’s scrutiny committee … by Conservative councillors. Labour, too, asked for the decision to be scrutinised.
Now this might suggest that was just a slim chance that there are some on the blue side of the Town Hall chamber who have some sort of reservations about the whole shabby business over our libraries.
So a motion that concentrated on condemning the contract and questioning favoured bidders JLIS’s fickleness over the library staff’s pension issue might, just, have offered one or two on the Tory side an opportunity to break party discipline and at least abstain from the motion. A point would have been made.
Instead, Labour’s motion offered a hostage to fortune by outlining a glorious future for the borough’s libraries being run as co-operatives, a policy that no self-respecting Tory is ever going to vote against. This was bad politics.
Lazy politics? The motion did manage to cause what the American military would call “collateral damage”, as it created outrage among the local library campaign.
They claimed not to have been consulted and to hold serious reservations about the co-op model, which Tim Pollard, the Conservative councillor in charge of the library deal, managed to highlight to hilarious effect in the chamber on Monday night (“Funny, Tim, but you’re no Stephen Fry. More Les Dennis”, was one comment from the gallery).
Godfrey says that he has consulted the various ginger groups attached to the libraries over the co-op scheme.
Not unreasonably, there are some who ask, if Godfrey is able to deliver the kind of cost savings that he promises through wielding an axe to the back-office costs that have so burdened the library budget, why is it not possible to have in-house managed public libraries, at least at 2009 levels of service? This would render the co-operative project redundant.
After all, a council-managed library service had worked very well for more than a hundred years when run by trained and experienced librarians (of which now, after three years of hollowing out the service, there are sadly too few left in Croydon). What is so wrong about having good, efficient public services being run for the benefit of the public, by a publicly accountable body?
It was former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan who characterised the Thatcher government’s privatisation policies on state-owned gas, water, telephone and other utilities as “selling off the family silver”. Now, 30 years on, there’s precious left to flog off.
So we have the NHS being handed out to private contractors, schools that have been built and equipped with millions of pounds of public cash being transferred to political party donors to be run as “academies”, and libraries to be managed by a firm of builders. The sorry shame of all this is that most of these policies were brought in by the last Labour government.
So if the policies of the two parties, the reds and the blues, have become so indistinguishable, is it any wonder that out “ordinary” and “non-political” residents wonder what’s the point of voting for either?
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