Aimless opposition could make for an extended honeymoon

THE VIEW FROM THE BACK BENCHES: Last night’s first council cabinet meeting of the new Labour administration was full of interesting announcements for Waddon councillor ANDREW PELLING

Early signs are that council meetings will be conducted differently for Andrew Pelling and his new council colleagues

Early signs are that council meetings will be conducted differently for Andrew Pelling (centre of picture) and his new council colleagues

So that’s what my Labour colleagues have been up to over the last month.

A torrent of policy initiatives were unleashed at last night’s cabinet meeting. The new ideas all had a resonance with the issues that did so much to shape Labour’s election victory in May.

Despite the £1 billion debt mountain bequeathed by the Conservatives to Croydon’s hard-pressed tax-payers, Labour is coming across as the party with solutions to many of the borough’s most pressing problems.

Labour’s cabinet members have clearly spent much of their first 38 days in office examining their briefs and putting detail to their policies to good effect, so much so that even the Croydon Sadvertiser – as much part of the borough Establishment as the local Conservative Party – has been praising Labour. This is a very good summer political honeymoon.

More open and transparent council proceedings? Done: last night’s first online broadcast of a council meeting for more than five years is a very encouraging start.

The cabinet, and those watching the meeting remotely, were informed of the “Don’t Mess with Croydon” campaign, launched on the administration’s second day in office, to clean up the literal mess left on Croydon’s streets by the Conservatives. Also announced was a private landlord licensing scheme to deal with some of the excesses of letting agents, there is to be a scheme to encourage Play Streets, and a schools’ trading mutual company is to be formed to improve the availability of education.

A Croydon Fairness Commission, modelled on the successful precedent in Islington, was also put forward. This not only fits in with Labour’s decision to review every single spend to see if each item can be justified, but it will also aim, as in Islington, to garner the social capital that comes from creating a desire for fairness and community responsibility in a caring civic society, where the council no longer has the money to care for all without help from its own residents.

Waddon, the ward I represent, will benefit from such a focus on fairness, with social deprivation scores worse than Thornton Heath and South Norwood, and a life expectancy rate better only than Fieldway and Selhurst among other wards in the borough.

With crime an issue in the local elections, there was also a Community Safety Strategy to deal with last night.

Labour deputy leader Stuart Collins launched the Don't Mess With Croydon campaign with a couple of days of taking charge of the council

Labour deputy leader Stuart Collins launched the Don’t Mess With Croydon campaign within a couple of days of taking charge of the council

Steve Reed, the Croydon North MP, said how it was notable that at the first meeting of the Labour council, the very first item of business was about dealing with the issue of the filthy state of Croydon’s streets compared to other boroughs.

If anything, this was the key issue that lost the council for the Conservatives. Reed said that the Tory administration had “closed its ears” to the issue and had been “in total denial”, leaving it unable to deal with the epidemic of fly-tipping which has blighted our borough.

It was reasonable for Tony Newman, in his position as the Leader of the Council, to express surprise that Phil Thomas, for the Conservatives, was still shadowing the streets cleaning role he used to hold. It was Thomas’s failure to cope with the rising tide of filth which did so much to damage the Tories at the ballot box.

Now Labour is cracking down on fly-tipping with a flying squad of new trucks, and we are getting all council staff members to report fly-tipping on new equipment. We will be increasing street cleansing in areas that need it, while making it easier for residents to report street muck, increasing the number of street bins, and looking at replacing the flimsy green and blue recycling boxes, which themselves litter our streets when the lids  blow away. We are to look, instead, at providing each household with just one recycling bin, and to encourage more recycling.

As well as carrots, there will be sticks for offenders, as our council is making spitting and urinating in public punishable with on-the-spot fixed penalty notices. For those caught fly-tipping, penalties are to be increased and – controversially – the 50 per cent discount offered to offenders for early payment is to be abolished.

The webcast also allowed a projection of images of individual speakers on to a very large screen in high-definition. This is very helpful when you can’t really see the facial expressions of the contributors to the debate when your seat is at the back of the Town Hall’s large chamber.  The screen is much bigger than that on offer down at the railway line by East Croydon station.

The screening also provided the chance to observe how the Conservatives are handling their new role in opposition. So far, they are performing dreadfully. Many look like they have just swallowed a bumble bee. My former Conservative colleagues come across as negative and, worse, just lacking class. It’s not enough for Conservatives to preface their remarks by saying they support Labour’s attractive initiatives, but then to trade in snide or unpleasant remarks.

The contrast with Labour’s positivity was stark. Newman began the meeting by kindly and genuinely wishing Mike Fisher, the absent Tory leader, well as he tackles a health problem.

The Conservatives’ negativity on the night saw them announce that they are against fairness, but in favour of rogue landlords and estate agents, a profession less popular with voters even than MPs or journalists.

Not content with negativity, the Conservatives also set out to slander Croydon’s most senior man of the cloth. Vidhi Mohan looked ill at ease as he was thrust into a more prominent role, perhaps to get him extra attention now he is the only Conservative councillor in Croydon who will be standing in a parliamentary seat at next May’s General Election. Mohan managed to describe those volunteers and community leaders who come forward to be members of the Fairness Commission as “Labour cronies” and accused them of being paid for their work.

Jonathan Clark, The Bishop of Croydon: a member of the Fairness Commission

Jonathan Clark, The Bishop of Croydon: a member of the Fairness Commission. Or a “Labour crony” according to the Tory councillor Vidhi Mohan

Among those likely to be on the Fairness Commission is Jonathan Clark, the Bishop of Croydon.

Simon Hall, Labour’s finance cabinet member, had to put Mohan right, telling him that members of the commission will get expenses only.

For Thomas, it was a difficult meeting, in which he tried to say that the new streets cleansing policy was not enough of a change from what he did – the closest perhaps that he could come to apologising from his failures on office.

Thomas also queried where the money would come from. Tellingly, Stuart Collins, Labour’s deputy leader and the cabinet member in charge of making Croydon a greener borough, was able to respond that just as the Tories were able to find the cash for their (gimmicky) £25 Council Tax rebate, Labour would be able to find the money to do something positive, such as improve street cleaning.

For the Conservatives, Dudley Mead supported the policy to regulate landlords and their letting agents, but – apparently in all seriousness – he pleaded for estate agents, saying that one had told him recently that the rental market was “fragile” and could be brought to its knees by the cost of Croydon Council’s new regulation in the private rented sector. London rent levels are increasing at 9.4 per cent a year, so perhaps the market is not that fragile.

Indeed, it was the Mayor of London, Conservative Boris Johnson, who has introduced the “London Rental Standard” so it was odd to see the Croydon Tories cavilling at the landlord policy built around powers provided under Labour’s 2004 Housing Act. Labour wants a £200 registration fee from landlords operating properties in the borough; Mead opposes this, accusing the council of aiming to make a profit from landlords and letting agents.

Mead reckons the council could raise £6 million from this landlords’ levy. This from the party that splashed out £140 million on a new council headquarters when there were numerous empty offices to refurbish more cheaply. With Labour having inherited the Tories’ £1 billion council debt – the equivalent of nearly £7,000 for every home in Croydon –  £6 million could be seen as the first down-payment to pay-off unfunded Tory spending promises.

The Conservatives need to learn the ropes quickly to be an effective opposition. They are all at sea at the moment, as Labour sails off into the summer sunset.

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2 Responses to Aimless opposition could make for an extended honeymoon

  1. The Tories see Croydon as their private fiefdom, merely lent to Labour for the next four years.

    I think they’re wrong, unless Labour does something silly,

    There’s a a steady increase in the cosmopolitan make-up of the borough, creeping slowly but steadily south and with it the propensity of many more residents to vote Labour. That is always providing the current council shoulders its responsibilities to provide a range and quality of services expected of a go-ahead London borough.

    • I don’t think the Tory opposition are aimless so much as clueless. Clearly, their aim is to stop being the minority group and get back into power.

      Achieving that goal is something which, right now, seems beyond them.

      Their negative campaigning before the election showed they had no real answer to Labour’s “ambitious for Croydon” manifesto, nor to the problems they’d let build up, such as fly-tipping.

      Their reaction to the results was a combination of shock at the extent of their losses, and seeking to blame anyone but themselves, e.g. Clare Hilley’s slur on voters for being so dumb as to ignore the Conservatives’ apparent monopoly and instead vote for another uncaring right-wing party, namely UKIP.

      Croydon Tories’ poor performance at the new council’s first Cabinet meeting on Monday shows they’ve got a lot to learn.

      Mike Fisher failed to show up, perhaps for legitimate reasons, but not a good sign. Tim Pollard’s early attempt at point-scoring re the Ashburton library deal was swiftly derailed by Tony Newman’s point that all three Tories had been completely unseated there at the election.

      Phil Thomas’s bear with a sore head act failed to hit home, ditto Vidhi Mohan’s rambling monologue. Steve O’Connell’s offer of help was, typically, incredible.

      Jason Perry’s innocent tweet about his weekend was – ill-advisedly – written and sent while Labour’s Mark Watson was talking about the issue of domestic violence, something that Croydon Tories had apparently taken very seriously indeed – before the election.

      A change in Tory leadership and a reshuffle of its front bench is overdue, it seems. On that point, professional politician, Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, is taking an undue level of interest in local affairs given his day job and position as Assistant Whip. Perhaps he’s laying the ground for re-entering Croydon council if things turn pear-shaped for him at next year’s general election.

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