Can Croydon be confident that the Town Hall elections later this month are not subject to political bias from the public officials who are charged under Act of Parliament with staging the vote with scrupulous impartiality?
Consider the following.
In 2009, Nathan Elvery was the borough’s deputy CEO, on a salary of around £150,000. That year, he set-up a private company, Sundragon Associates, ostensibly to offer consultancy services to local authorities.
Although apparently a prima facie breach of the terms of his employment contract, no disciplinary action was taken by his then boss, Jon Rouse, the borough solicitor, Julie Belvir, nor by the political leadership of the council, Tory councillor Mike Fisher.
Also in 2009, again in 2011 and most recently this year, Croydon Council’s procurement policy – a matter under the direct control of Nathan Elvery – was called into question by a series of reports in Private Eye magazine and other media for the handling of school transport contracts with a firm called Olympic South.
Olympic South was awarded a juicy multi-million-pound deal despite not having the required registered vehicles to transport children, nor proper insurance (in 2013, Olympic South was stripped of the operating licences for 60 of its 100 vehicles). The original affair was subject to an internal council investigation (which found nothing awry, naturally), and later a damning District Auditor’s report. No public disciplinary action was taken on the matter over Elvery’s role in the contract procurement by his then boss, Jon Rouse, nor by the borough solicitor, Julie Belvir, nor by the political leadership of the council, Tory councillor Mike Fisher.
In 2013, Jon Rouse left Croydon Council, somewhat hurriedly some suggested at the time, to take up a far less well-paid role in the NHS. Mike Fisher, leader of the Croydon Tories who have controlled the council since 2006, appointed Rouse’s deputy, Nathan Elvery, as the interim CEO. Any appointment of a replacement for Rouse would not be confirmed until after the local elections in May 2014.
On April 14, 2014, a period of “election purdah” began in Croydon, when local government officials were under a warning not to do anything which might affect the way people vote.
The Local Government Act 1986 states: “A local authority shall not publish or arrange for the publication of any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect the support for a political party.”
Indeed, the borough solicitor, Julie Belvir, has issued specific guidance to council employees and councillors which highlights paragraph 34 of the 1986 Act, which states, “…local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any members or groups of members”.
Belvir has also highlighted paragraph 35 of the 1986 Local Government Act: “In general, local authorities should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters.”
That appears to be clear enough, doesn’t it?
On April 17, 2014, Croydon Council, at significant public expense, issued a press release under the heading, “Record number of first-choice school places offered”. It is a record of sorts, by Tory-run Croydon’s low standards, although the figures do not compare well with neighbouring boroughs. That is not mentioned in the press release. Hey ho…
The council-issued press release, coming three days after election purdah began, did include these comments from Nathan Elvery, the chief executive of Croydon Council, the borough’s highest paid public servant: “Parents of 4,530 of Croydon’s children will be delighted to learn over the next few days, if they haven’t already, their children will be going to one of their three favoured schools. This is fantastic news for everyone and shows how our focus on building new school places is paying off for the benefit of local people.”
On April 22, 2014, by now a week into election purdah, and Croydon Council issued another press release, this time under the heading “Unemployed number tumbles by thousands”. It reported that in March 2014, “Thousands of Croydon people have been wiped off the jobless list over the past 14 months… In February 2013, the borough had 10,142 people looking for work; by March of this year, more than 3,000 had been wiped off that tally, with 7,085 claiming JSA [Job Seekers’ Allowance]”.
We will not go in to the accuracy of the figures, nor what might have caused 3,000 people to be “wiped off” , as our council’s press office put it so charmlessly, the unemployment figures. Suffice to say, the policies of Croydon Council are reckoned to have limited impact on regenerating the state of the national economy. Beyond, that is, reducing the number of people employed by Croydon Council by many hundreds.
In what was supposed to be a politically neutral press release, issued using public money, the interim CEO of the council, Nathan Elvery, is quoted as saying, “These are tremendous numbers for Croydon and show that the council is working hard on behalf of everybody in the borough.
“Nobody can deny that the past few years have been extremely challenging but, as these latest statistics show, the corner has now been turned.”
On April 29, 2014, two weeks into election purdah, and Croydon Council’s publicity machine was in action once more. “Communities project lands national commendation”, they said.
They quoted a public servant, local authority employee Nathan Elvery, as saying, “Community Connectors has been a tremendously successful scheme on which our communities team worked really hard to achieve tangible results… I’m confident that the Community Connectors project is a model that can be successfully adapted to suit the needs of other areas of the borough, improving local facilities, bringing people together and boosting the quality of life for our residents.”
Might this, like the two other press releases, influence the way Croydon residents cast their votes on election day?
On May 22, 2014, Nathan Elvery, through his position as the borough’s most senior employee, will be in overall charge of the local elections in his capacity as returning officer.
On May 23, 2014, Nathan Elvery’s future as the chief executive of Croydon Council, on an annual salary approaching £250,000, may depend on whether the Conservatives or Labour win control of the council.
In the past, Croydon’s then returning officer has refused to allow Labour candidates to have their party’s logo on the ballot paper, and in 2010 denied dozens of voters their democratic right to vote simply by failing to staff polling stations properly.
This year, in what is expected to be a tight contest, and with mounting signs that the incumbent Tories have attempted to influence council action to further their political goals, it is not unreasonable to ask: can we really rely upon the impartiality of Croydon’s returning officer?
Inside Croydon’s recent coverage of the local elections:
- Scouring Croham’s campaign for something which might inspire
- These are the councillors who voted to build on a public park
- Questions mount over political influence at council
- Telegraph poll suggests UKIP poised to win Town Hall seats
- What Barwell fails to tell you and the myths of Council Tax
- Council allowances and local politicians’ secret consensus
- The list of candidates for the May 22 local elections
Coming to Croydon
- Crystal Palace Chamber of Commerce Question Time, May 7
- David Lean Cinema: Wadjda, May 8
- Coulsdon Euro election hustings, May 8
- David Lean Cinema: Blue Velvet, May 10
- South Norwood local election hustings, May 12
- Thornton Heath local election hustings, May 14
- Norwood Society Talk: West Norwood – a place of change, May 15
- David Lean Cinema: The Invisible Woman, May 15
- Broad Green local election hustings, May 15
- Coulsdon West local election hustings, May 16
- Croydon RFC charity memorial day, May 17
- Coulsdon East local election hustings, May 19 (confirmed)
- St Giles’ primary school open morning, May 21
- David Lean Cinema: The Rocket, May 22
- David Lean Cinema: Dallas Buyers Club, May 29
- Croydon Tech City “summit”, June 6
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, June 15
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Classic Car Show at Purley Rotary Fields, June 22
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- South Norwood Allotments open day, June 28
- Elm Tree Cottage garden open day, Aug 10
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough: 72,342 average monthly page views (Jan-Mar 2014)
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