Councillors get two months off to work out what they stand for

WALTER CONXITE, our man with a dog-eared copy of the local free paper and a part-eaten Yorkie bar, offers his pre-Grand National pin-stickers’ guide to the likely outcome of May’s local elections

Crystal palace: The new council HQ will cost every household in Croydon at least £1,000. But it doesn't seem like a vote-winning election issue

Crystal palace: The new council HQ will cost every household in Croydon at least £1,000. But it doesn’t seem like a vote-winning election issue

Croydon’s councillors, all 70 of them who between them pocket £1.4 million of public cash each year in euphemistic “allowances”, now have no further full council meetings to attend scheduled until July. For some of them, like the 14 who have been de-selected by the Conservatives (10) and Labour (four) parties, they have attended their last full council meeting, at least for a while, after they get formally replaced on May 23.

With the local elections looming, it means that in 2014, Croydon councillors may get at least five months off having to attend full council this year (other sub-committees, such as strategic planning which meets tonight, will continue to operate).

So the councillors are now free to concentrate on campaigning in Croydon’s marginal wards. It’s unclear, though, whether the councillors have anything of value to communicate to the voters.

Croydon’s Conservatives and Labour groups look likely though to retain their duopoly of power in what promises to be a very close-fought local election. The post-Budget drift for Labour in the national opinion polls leaves the Conservatives the favourites to return to office in Katharine Street, where they have held power since 2006.

The lack of a full council meeting from March 24 to, at the earliest, June 3 seems likely to cause no damage to the governance of Croydon.

The council meetings have such little power to transact business that they have become just a stage for exchanges of personal abuse and put-downs that are widely acknowledged to deter the general public from taking any interest in local politics. Maybe that’s the politicos’ deliberate intention.

The nasty, bullying culture of the council meetings took another notch downward among the dying embers of the London Borough of Croydon’s unlucky spendthrift 13th council.

Previously the personal remarks have been limited to the verbal exchanges, but this time round there was a new nadir reached. Leader of the Council, florid-faced Mike Fisher, gave good counsel in a written answer about proper courtesy between councillors. “I believe councillors should always behave in a reasonable way towards each other,” Fisher said in one instance.

Sadly, at the next turn, he neglected his own advice.

Mike Fisher: not as polite and reasonable as he says he should be

Mike Fisher: not as polite and reasonable as he says he should be

Normally, written answers from councillors are the more civil part of the council process, offering some real information rather than party political rhetoric. But Fisher’s departing answers before the election extended the snide remarks, managing to deride nine councillors by name and a member of the public. It was the tone of the pub bore, not a council leader.

No wonder voter turnout on election day May 22 is expected to be low. Even so, it would struggle to go lower than Fisher.

The Conservative leader has so little to say that, less than two months before election day, his party has not even been able to publish a manifesto for its plans and aspirations for the next four years in office. The Conservative route to re-election appears to be relying on a reduced Labour lead in the national opinion polls, a questionable local record and a campaign to frighten the electorate that the current Labour councillors were complicit in increasing Council Tax by 27 per cent in just one year (some 12 years ago). Such an approach looks a bit worn, having been used in 2010.

It is an especially tired tactic when councils are not permitted to increase Council Tax by more than 1.99 per cent without recourse to a local referendum (and imagine how that might work: “Vote for increased Council Tax. Vote early! Vote often!”). The Tories’ electoral gambit might become unstitched during the formal 39-day election campaign running from the opening of nominations on April 14.

Labour, by contrast, is concentrating on how badly what money the council has had has been spent by the Conservatives. The shiny new £140 million council HQ with its £20,000 replacement taps and the £410.46 umbrella wrapping machine are in their sights. The ballooning £1 billion debt of the council also gets a Labour mention.

Voters, though, think that councils generally are poor on value for money and are maybe unmoved by these municipal follies that fascinate councillors but not residents with better things to worry about.

Labour, unlike Croydon’s Conservatives, has a manifesto. There’s a voter-pleasing positive slogan that stands apart from the negative tone emanating from council meetings – “Ambitious for Croydon”.

Unfortunately though Labour’s promises, they confess in their manifesto, rely on a Labour Government getting back to power to provide the funds for most of those local promises.

A Labour Government, if elected in 2015 would, like the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, also be cutting spending and reducing money for local government. Labour would be unlikely to be able to fix the local government financial settlement to help Croydon without also helping the other, mainly Conservative and Liberal Democrat outer London boroughs – not a likely Labour goal. The last Labour Government did, though, get around that problem by giving a direct cash grant called LEGI (Local Enterprise Growth Initiative). This was cancelled by the incoming ConDem coalition in 2010, to Croydon’s detriment.

Putting a manifesto forward that’s dependent on the election of a different government seems the height of optimism. Either that, or Tony “Soprano” Newman, the leader of the local Labour group, has calculated that multi-million pound income from the property deals in the urban regeneration vehicle, or CCURV, the joint venture between the council and John Laing, hitherto kept a strict secret from anyone outside Fisher’s magic circle, could be about to come the Town Hall’s way.

How much of that will be needed to pay off the various loans the council has taken out to keep the property deal ticking over through the recession is yet to emerge.

The holy grail for Croydon councillors seeking election: the £1bn redevelopment offered by Westfield and Hammerson

The holy grail for Croydon councillors seeking election: the £1bn redevelopment offered by Westfield and Hammerson

There’s a similar uncertainty over the very few promises proffered by UKIP, which says that any UKIP councillors will be free to vote as they want, so making any UKIP promises at the local election worthless, by definition being undeliverable.

Any incoming administration will hope that business rates from the £1 billion Hammersfield development, due on-stream from 2017 but already suffering delays, will help in the rescue of the council’s perilous finances. So the political fortunes of the councillors will depend on Tory party donors Westfield and Hammerson finding the money quickly to get work started on with the new shopping mall and flats next year. Not a strong negotiating position for councillors running a cash-strapped, debt-burdened council; but the developers have known that all along.

As to which party will be dealing with the problems of Croydon if the two dominant Croydon political parties match their past performance in the lower turn-out local elections in 2002 and 2006, using the UK Polling Report average of national opinion polls putting Labour at 37 per cent and the Conservatives at 34 per cent the result declared on May 23 looks as if it will be

  • Conservatives 36

  • Labour 34

  • Others 0

While Labour seems likely to regain the Tory-held seat in New Addington, the currently Conservative Waddon ward and Labour-held Addiscombe would, on current opinion polls, see very close-run fights which will likely determine who holds the Town Hall.

In these circumstances both parties will hope that their local efforts will see them outperform what the national opinion polls are pointing to as the likely result.

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1 Response to Councillors get two months off to work out what they stand for

  1. davidcallam says:

    I fear your correspondent is right about the result.
    Official campaigning will pass most people by; I couldn’t be bothered to walk to the front door to speak to a prospective councillor.
    I will definitely vote, but between two-thirds and three-quarters of my fellow electors won’t bother.
    The farce goes on.

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