Going live and going Dutch offering encouraging early signs

THE FIRST 100 DAYS: Following a fortnight’s post-election hiatus at Fisher’s Folly (the council shredding machines were glowing red-hot, allegedly), Tony Newman’s Labour group finally got the keys to Croydon Town Hall for the first time in eight years. This Thursday marks Labour’s 100th day in office.

Tony Newman: promised to "blow open the books" on the CCURV property speculation scheme once in office

Labour leader Tony Newman on election night in May: still has much work to do to deliver on his promises

Here, DAVID CALLAM, a local business journalist, assesses how the Labour council is coping with a legacy left by “spendthrift spivs”

Anyone expecting to see substantial changes in the way the council is run at this early stage is being a tad optimistic. A local authority is a complex mechanism employing thousands of staff, many of whom have no idea which party runs the Town Hall. They have a range of duties to perform relating to the business of delivering day-to-day services: elected members are neither expected nor encouraged to interfere.

The administration is under the control of the chief executive, who is required, in theory, to implement the policies of the majority party. In practice, there is a delicate balance to be struck between what the politicians want and what the administration can deliver, given the practical constraints of how much money there is to spend.

If Croydon Labour forgot how things work during its wilderness years, it has had a timely reminder since it took power once again.

Little things are possible immediately: larger ones take much longer, maybe the whole four-year term. But that’s okay because the electorate will judge the party’s stewardship of the council in the final few months of its term, not the first 100 days, and then decide whether to reward it with a further four years of power .

All that said: how is Labour doing? The commitment to a more open administration was tested early with the simple and inexpensive decision to broadcast council meetings online.

I watched the first cabinet meeting a few days after it took place. I was pleasantly surprised, this being Croydon, how good the pictures were and how clearly I could hear councillors making promises, of which I can remind them in the months or even years to come.

Croydon Council's first webcast meeting for nearly eight years happened within days of Labour taking charge

Croydon Council’s first webcast meeting for nearly eight years happened within days of Labour taking charge

I was genuinely impressed by a number of references from new cabinet members to consulting colleagues in other London boroughs. I find this particularly positive because Croydon has a long-standing reputation for re-inventing the wheel when solutions are readily available elsewhere. Long may this spirit of enquiry continue; it will pay huge dividends for a council that has yet to make its mark in Greater London because it has been too busy in the past 50 years casting envious eyes towards the Surrey borders and beyond.

I was also impressed by the lack of any hiding place for bad behaviour: of course the Tories are disappointed by their performance in the local elections, but if they want to regain credibility quickly they will need to put that all behind them and not be seen to be carping all the time like spoilt children.

I am delighted by the new council’s decision to reinstate the Arnhem link. It was petty-minded of the previous administration to cancel it in the first place.

In the past we have never made as much of the twinning link with the Dutch town as we could. For those attending the 70th anniversary commemorations, while you’re there go for a tour of Titus College: you will be impressed by the tertiary students’ outward-looking attitude and their ability to communicate in colloquial English. When you come home, be ready to light a fire under the self-satisfied management at Croydon College.

While in Arnhem, Croydon’s councillors and officials should go and see the city’s GelreDome stadium with its retractable roof and roll-in, roll-out sports pitch, a natty arrangement that allows it to double as the home of the Dutch Premiership football club Vitesse and as a concert venue.

When they come home, our councillors should be prepared to start talking to Crystal Palace Football Club and others about a similar development in Croydon. It could be a substantial boost for the local economy.

Outside the Town Hall chamber these past three months or so, the new council has already had to grapple with what Harold Macmillan used to call, “Events, dear boy, events”.

There was the small matter of the appointment of a new chief executive. For an open administration, Labour played its cards close to its chest here, but drove a credible bargain, appointing acting CEO, Nathan Elvery. He may not be everyone’s favourite boss, but he is relatively cheap. To be precise, he accepted the top job for his existing deputy’s salary and agreed to do another executive director’s job too. That’s the kind of deal a television dragon might have been pleased to seal.

I’m less impressed with the Don’t Mess With Croydon campaign. The intention is beyond reproach, but this is a case of a new council trying to run before it can toddle. By all means come down really hard on parasite fly-tippers, but make sure you have the staff in place to do it properly before you print the T-shirts. Otherwise, you end up looking silly and having large amounts of rubbish to clear up. Some good detective work, leading to successful prosecutions in a blaze of publicity will work wonders.

Labour deputy leader Stuart Collins launched the Don't Mess With Croydon campaign within 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

I am also concerned by the proposal to sub-let parts of Bernard Weatherill House.

This is not a novel idea: it was mooted in the early 1960s to defray the costs of a newly built Taberner House. It didn’t work then, in a buoyant office market, and I can’t see it doing so now when there is plenty of commercial floor space available elsewhere in the town. It might be better to accept the £240 million cost, making sure the electorate knows precisely which bunch of spendthrift spivs are responsible for this additional debt and any consequent Council Tax increase.

Looking forward, the biggest event on the political horizon is next year’s General Election. A change of government is possible. If it happens, local government, including Croydon, will have to dance to a completely different tune.

Local government finance is substantially dependent on money the council receives from Whitehall. Since both major parties have promised more austerity, the outlook is bleak. Croydon Labour has plans that are predicated on more funding from a Labour central government, but that looks more unlikely with every passing day.

The new government, of whatever stripe, will try to do what the present one is doing and make local government take the politically difficult decisions. If Croydon’s Labour council isn’t astute it will find itself facing a hostile electorate in 2018 and any good it may have done will be interred with its bones.

Coming to Croydon

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Going live and going Dutch offering encouraging early signs

  1. davidjl2014 says:

    The Cabinet is a ridiculous system and any democratic council would abolish it immediately to return to the Committee procedures that served Croydon so well over many years. Give elitist power to a small number whether, blue, red, yellow or green and you’re asking for trouble. Did the minority of the people in Croydon who bothered to vote in the local election, vote so to see their local Councillor sit in Council Meetings like a rotting cabbage? Little wonder that this administration, like so many before it, actually represents under half of the people they enforce their politics on, and then go on administer a Cabinet who represent even less than that!
    Scotland managed a magnificent turn out recently. Why? Because it mattered to them. This “micky mouse” Croydon Council will prove no better than the last. Full of hot air and political diatribe. The real issues of Local Government will not be addressed, and they will lurch from one crisis to another. But one thing is for sure, we’ll ALL be paying more Council Tax for the privilege of it within the next four years. Will it matter then? The Scots have already told you.

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