WALTER CRONXITE recounts the unedifying clusterfuck that has engulfed the Labour-run council over its development plans. Which they say that they don’t have
Croydon’s Conservative councillors are predicting that Simon Hall’s days as a member of Labour’s front-bench team are numbered.
Phil Thomas, the red-necked Selsdon and Ballards Tory, was able to declare at Monday’s council meeting, the last of 2014, that Labour’s position on the sale, or non-sale, of the borough’s school playing fields is “a shambles”.
Few, other than the arch-loyalists in Tony Newman’s Labour “team”, could have disagreed with “Two Permits” Thomas’s “shambles” description over what was and what was not meant by an official council report to cabinet on the matter. Even the MP for the Whitgift Foundation, which itself has managed to build on school playing fields, had been able to get up a petition (or “data-scraping exercise” as it is better known) looking to “save” Croydon’s playing fields from this pernicious threat.
But what followed at Monday night’s meeting and into Tuesday as Croydon’s Labour leadership tried to close the matter down was, if possible, worse. When in a hole, Tony…
Councillor Hall’s “Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no” performance on Monday night did not help clarify whether Labour has any “plans” to build on the playing fields or not.
But as the shambles rumbled on, it raises further questions about who is actually in charge at the Croydon Town Hall.
Since Labour won the local elections in May, Hall has been one of council leader Newman’s busiest cabinet members as he has been working hard to tackle another “shambles”, the £100 million “financial black hole” that the former Tory leader, Mike #WadGate Fisher, boasted about leaving behind for Labour to sort out.
Hall’s successful backroom work resulted in the announcement on Monday that Croydon’s Council Tax will be frozen next year (though it is hardly “news”: it is the one election pledge which even Newman dare not break).
Yet this good news for Labour was eclipsed entirely by the near-farcical inconsistency over what the group’s position is on building on school playing fields. The Christmas pantomime looks set for a long run if Newman’s Labour group continues to exhibit such crass incompetence.
Labour were quietly, calmly unpicked by the forensic questioning of Tory scrutiny star Jason Cummings, the councillor for Heathfield ward.
And yet the Conservatives’ approach had Baldrick-like cunning, as they sought to hand their political opponents a gilt-edged opportunity to put the whole matter to bed once and for all. Cummings and the Tories spoke to a motion which called on the council to re-consider, and re-write, the policy document – “Asset Strategy – a new approach” – presented to cabinet on November 17, where the spectre of building houses on playing fields was first so clumsily let loose.
Had the Labour group been on the mulled wine before the meeting, rather than waiting for the Mayor’s traditional invitation to her parlour afterwards? They certainly flunked the opportunity to re-write the report.
It has been one flip-flop after another ever since.
Cummings quoted from the report on the council’s asset strategy. “A number of school sites have very large playing fields and ancillary land that may be considered excessive for the number of students that attend the school. Where this may be the case the schools will be identified and opportunities considered for development of affordable housing.”
Stuart Collins, the Labour deputy leader, dismissed the Tory debate as a “non-motion about something that is not happening”.
Alisa Flemming, paid an annual salary of £43,339 as Labour’s education front-bencher, then delivered another incoherent and confused response, in which she accused the Conservatives of “scaremongering” and asserted that her speech was about, “Categorically confirming that there are no plans to build on school playing fields.”
For her, selling school playing fields was, “a plan that does not exist”.
Channeling her inner Vicky Pollard, Flemming then said, “Let our ‘yes’ be our ‘yes’, and our ‘no’ be our ‘no’ – there are no plans and there never have been.”
Now Hall spoke, charging the Conservatives of exploiting “some loose wording”. Presumably, he was referring to the bit in the council report that loosely spoke of, “Where this may be the case the schools will be identified and opportunities considered for development of affordable housing”.
You can read the main part of the report here: Main report to cabinet on assets. You’ll notice that the cabinet member responsible is… Councillor Simon Hall.
Having confronted the Tories, Hall now opened a second front, accusing the Sadvertiser, which had first flagged up this sensational proposal in the cabinet report, of “sensationalist journalism”.
Tory Councillor Yvette Hopley dared to speak the unspoken truth, that Labour’s cabinet members simply had not made the effort to proof-read their own report, which most likely will have been written by a council official.
“I am absolutely astounded that you have no recollection of your own cabinet papers,” Hopley said. She is not alone. “It really is quite worrying that you do not know what is in your own cabinet papers.”
At risk of being accused of labouring (no pun intended) the point, Croydon’s 10-strong council cabinet is paid just short of £450,000 a year. So failing to read their own brief before it is published would appear to be lackadaisical.
When Cummings continued his calm, cool probing, this only seemed to antagonise Hall.
Hall demanded to be heard when Cummings referred to …
… a report in the local newspaper where Hall was quoted as saying that there were plans to build on school playing fields, but other than one school in his own ward, he refused to name which schools they might be.
“This administration has no plans to sell playing fields or to build on playing fields,” he said, adding, “What I talked about [to the Sadvertiser] was the ones where the ratio of size of site to number of pupils were worthy of looking at.”
Cue derisive laughter, which sadly drowned out some of Hall’s further unintended confessions.
Cummings intervened. His quiet man act was paying dividends. In measured tones, the Tory councillor asked that Hall be allowed to repeat his remarks so that, this time, everyone might hear them.
Hall said that they had indeed looked at school sites with “car parks and roads”.
“To be clear,” which Hall wasn’t, “we have no plans… that would only be if anything came from schools.”
But there was confusion to be discovered in those papers, too.
In response to a written question from Croham councillor Maria Gatland, “Does Councillor Flemming support selling off school playing fields?”, Flemming had given an unequivocal response: “No.”
But in the same wodge of papers was another written answer, this time contradicting the education spokeswoman, Flemming. This answer was provided by Hall (doesn’t Newman have someone among his highly paid coterie to co-ordinate the Labour group’s answers?).
Not only did Hall contradict Flemming, but he also managed to contradict himself. Twice, in just a handful of lines.
“There are no plans to build on school playing fields.” So far, so good.
“The asset strategy will look at all council property and assets, including the school estate, to identify any potential opportunities.” Hmmm. So maybe…
“This work is currently at the review stage, however the administration has already made it clear that it will not sell or build on school playing fields.” Ahhh.
Put another way: “No, but yeah, but no.”
Labour backbenchers began to look more sheepish and reluctant to raise their hands to vote for the “No, but yeah, but no” policy. But they really didn’t have much of a choice in a system which owes as much to patronage as did the court of the Borgias.
Having voted for no change in policy, according to the Redhill-based local newspaper, after the meeting a Labour councillor contacted them – on the condition of anonymity, naturally – to suggest that their colleagues rarely even bother to read the council papers published in their name and that yes, the policy document would now be amended, contrary to how the Labour councillors had all just voted.
That the hotline to Redhill was activated should be no surprise. The Labour group on Croydon Council leaks like a sieve and appears to have a very large number of its team keen to go to the press for them to provide counselling sessions for their confessions as to the incompetence of their colleagues.
The Sadvertiser, which always used to be part of the Croydon Establishment and has never been regarded as particularly friendly to Labour, was therefore able to report that, “A Labour source admitted the council was looking at changing the wording. The source described the report as a ‘big cock up’ which few, if any, of Councillor Hall’s cabinet colleagues had read before the story came out.”
The Croydon Labour deep throat continued: “Officers should never have put it down in that way in writing. What may have happened is that officers did a register of assets and maybe got a bit excited and put down a list of things that they thought were possibly up for grabs. People do make mistakes and we will amend it.”
And we thought that Labour’s cabinet was running the borough, rather than the council officials so casually blamed by the Sadvertiser’s snitch.
Thing is, the unnamed councillor’s account has the ring of truth about it. It underlines how it is the council officials who really run the town. This perhaps also explains why so little changes when there is a change of political control.
It seems that what Councillor Hall had thought was an off-the-record briefing before the council meeting had actually been recorded by the paper’s star reporter, without advising his interviewee, what would be a serious breach of journalism ethics [OXYMORON KLAXON].
After Hall told the Town Hall chamber that the paper had quoted him out of context and accused it of “sensationalist” reporting, the Sadvertiser responded by posting a truncated version of the transcript of the sneakily recorded phone call. There were Hall’s words, admitting that there were plans to build on school sites, contradicting assertions made in the Town Hall chamber by Hall, Collins and Newman that there were no such plans.
Welcome to Croydon in 2014, where Orwell’s vision is becoming reality with each passing day. Like the images of hated traitors to the revolution Malchenko, Trotsky, Kamenev and Khalatov, all images of the original policy never existed.
Except that it is still says, “Yeah, but no, but yeah”.
“A review of existing school sites will be undertaken to identify potential opportunities for further expansion to meet the Council’s growing need for primary and secondary places. Over the next 3 years the Council will need to provide a significant number of additional places; and with pressures relating to Housing and financial resources stretched, further development of existing sites will be critical,” it says.
“Academy schools have generally been granted 125 year leases on full repairing and insuring terms. However, as the freeholder, the Council still retains an interest in both the land and the opportunities that may exist for wider regeneration or development of housing and other Council related service provision where it meets the needs of our communities.”
To be clear, then: There are no plans to build on school playing fields. None whatsoever. Until they plan to build on a school playing field.
The whole sorry episode underlines just how little the council has really changed since the election, except to have become even less transparent, as if that were possible.
This lack of transparency was highlighted by Gatland, who again showed her better leadership and political acumen than the Tories’ desperately dull new leader, Tim Pollard.
Gatland observed of the “new shiny Labour council” that professions of “…transparency and openness are great words but action speaks louder than words. It’s the same old Labour party.” Gatland could easily have added that it is the same old council, where senior officers, rather than elected representatives, are actually running the show.
Sara Bashford, the new Tory deputy leader, was right to express concerns about council contracts now being agreed by just two councillors of the same party. This new system, introduced since Labour were elected in May, has replaced a previous system in which a committee of councillors of both parties reviewed council contracts.
The secretive sale of Addington Palace golf course for a pittance (as previously reported by Inside Croydon) was highlighted in this context by Bashford.
What was worse was the assertion that only officers and a very limited number of councillors can have access to the council’s contracts. This was revealed in a written answer to the Green Party activist, Shasha Khan, regarding Croydon’s part in the contract with Viridor for the Beddington Lane incinerator. “Access to the unredacted version of the contract between the Council and Viridor in respect of the proposed incinerator (Energy Recovery Facility – ERF) plant at Beddington Lane is restricted to certain officers and Members within the Council which includes officers from the Council’s Waste management services, legal and finance.”
The response to Khan appears to suggest that while the Borough Solicitor, Julie Belvir, and the council’s CEO – and former finance director – the entrepreneurial Nathan Elvery, may have been allowed to see all of the details of the 25-year £1 billion deal between Viridor and the South London Waste Partnership (of which Croydon is one of four member boroughs), Stuart Collins, Labour’s deputy leader and the cabinet member for a clean, green Croydon (ha!) has not yet been trusted to have access to that information.
The culture for accountability is so poor at Croydon Council that Labour either can’t even be bothered to put together cogent policies or alternatively are just the puppets of established council officials.
Of one thing Inside Croydon’s loyal reader can be certain: we will never know who was really responsible for the clusterfuck that was the mis-handled policy over possible development on school playing fields.
Coming to Croydon
- St Andrew’s churchyard gardening session, 10am, Dec 6
- Fog Horn Funnies, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 6
- Croydon Philharmonic Handel’s Messiah, Fairfield Halls, Dec 6
- Coulsdon Yulefest, Dec 6-7
- Heathfield House Christmas charity bazaar, Dec 7
- Oval Tavern Folk Club, Dec 7
- David Lean Cinema, ’71, Dec 11
- Mayor of Croydon’s charity Christmas dinner, Dec 12
- South Croydon business breakfast, Dec 13
- Concert of Christmas music, St Luke’s, Woodside, Dec 13
- Opera Soiree at Whitgift School, Dec 14
- Friends of the Earth Green Beanfeast, Dec 15 (book by Dec 1)
- Croydon Philharmonic Christmas concert, St Matthew’s, Dec 16
- Spread Eagle’s Christmas Improv show, Dec 17
- David Lean Cinema, Northern Soul, Dec 18
- David Lean Cinema, Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, Dec 29
- David Lean Cinema, The Beat Beneath My Feet, Dec 30
- Norwood Society talk: Penge, the making of a suburb, Jan 15
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
- Norwood Society talk: Crystal Palace and Dulwich, Feb 19
- Norwood Society talk: Charlies Dickens in Norwood, Mar 19
- Norwood Society: Balloons and airships at Crystal Palace, Apr 16
Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough: 407,847 page views (Jan-Jun 2014) If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or local event, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org