WALTER CRONXITE, our man watching the webcast with a Yorkie bar and a cup of strong black coffee, calls for another reform of Croydon Council: scrap meetings of the full council. They’re a complete waste of time and public money, and expose many of our councillors as being simply not very good
What do we, as tax-payers, get for £72,000 a year?
The answer, in the case of Steve O’Connell, is questions such as this:
“I understand that the leader wishes to rename East Croydon Station, if so will he join me in urging that on the platforms and other signage the words ‘Home of the Eagles’ is added?”
Oh, how we laughed when we saw that among the thick wodge of blue papers for “written questions from council members” – that is, elected councillors – submitted ahead of the first full council meeting of 2015.
Former mortgage salesman O’Connell is the man who has been described, by the Daily Mail, no less, as the country’s most over-paid councillor, as at one stage back in 2011 he was raking in £129,000 for various positions as the London Assembly Member for Sutton and Croydon, a member of the Met Police Authority, and as a Kenley councillor.
When challenged on this largesse, the ever-modest O’Connell (he has plenty to be modest about… boom, boom), said, “I’m worth it.”
Even that was not quite enough for O’Connell, though. Earlier this year, when his party leader and colleague Mike Fisher was trousering an extra £13,000 in allowances on the quiet, O’Connell, too, stuck his snout close to the trough to see if he could snuff out more that he could claim.
This is the same Steve O’Connell who spends time on Twitter musing about royal pigs and the death of the Duke of Wellington (the latest one, not the victor of Waterloo), yet failed to get around to addressing questions from constituents about Transport for London’s fare hikes and commuter train service issues.
O’Connell’s take-home of public money has taken a bit of a hit since his party, the Conservatives, lost the local elections last year. Now, on top of the £53,973 he gets from City Hall, he receives a “mere” £17,986.08 in “allowances” as a member of the Tories’ “shadow cabinet” on Croydon Council.
So that’s a total of £71,959.08 a year income from the public purse for O’Connell.
O’Connell’s clearly still in high spirits, though, and so is able to spend his publicly financed time composing silly little questions about station signage for Crystal Palace football club (from whom he also receives the occasional freebie).
We mention this, since in that one, piss-take of a question, O’Connell managed to sum-up the fatuousness and utter vacuity of Croydon’s full council meetings. If our highly paid councillors can so easily demonstrate that these procedures are not to be taken seriously, then why should we?
Full council meetings can see 70 councillors (when everyone attends), plus hangers-on and council staff, sitting around all self-importantly in the Town Hall chamber for nearly three and a half hours, and amuse themselves at vast public expense by posing some facile questions about railway signage, or something a tad more helpful to their party leadership. Yes, there are other, more useful lines of questioning. But few useful answers.
And what is achieved by this charade of democracy? To borrow from Edwin Starr: absolutely nothing.
It is not as if the meeting of the full council is even allowed to decide anything. At one point last night, we were told that a breakthrough in openness and transparency had been reached, because a petition to save Purley Pool had attracted 5,000 signatories and therefore been granted a debate in the meeting. What materialised was nothing of the sort.
Nathan Elvery, the council’s chief executive, read out the petition. But She Who Must Be Obeyed, Julie Belvir, the Borough Solicitor, also read a pre-prepared statement saying that whatever was discussed on the night, no vote would be held and would matter even less, because any decision would have to be proposed to and agreed at the next meeting of the council’s cabinet. So just what is the point of the full council meeting?
Truth is, full council meetings have been entirely emasculated. It suits both political groups, and there’s a strong suspicion that it also suits council officials, such as Elvery and Belvir. Outside the Trumptonesque ceremonial of the Mayor-Making and the set-piece when Council Tax is set, meetings of the full council have descended into a talking shop where the talk is cheap. Unless you’re a Council Tax-payer.
Lynne Hale, one of the Tory councillors allowed to speak to the Purley Pool motion, got very animated, jumping up and down like a demented Violet Elizabeth, demanding to have a vote on the motion, and managing to deliver a Hitler-style salute as she urged all those around her to join in her little pantomime.
Hale’s day-job is as an assistant to the outgoing MP for Croydon South, Sir Tricky Dicky Ottaway, where she tops up her councillor pay-packet with another £20,000-plus of public salary. “Hale’s performance was embarrassing,” one of her Tory colleagues confided afterwards, “but she got her position in the group due to being a part of the Sanderstead Mafia rather than ability.” It shows.
“It’s like a sixth-form debating society,” noted another observer. Truth is, it was never as good as that. Too many of the speakers had failed to practice their lines, never mind learning them, and they read nervously from shaking sheets of paper. Not only do they lack public-speaking skills, few of them, from either side, can construct an argument. Churchillian it was not.
At least, that’s the case for those councillors who are fortunate enough to be selected to speak. Mario Creatura, like Hale, only moonlights as a councillor. His day job is as a gobby fac totum to Gavin Barwell, a Sanderstead resident and the beleaguered MP for the Whitgift Foundation. So Creatura is another who’s doubling up on his salary at considerable public expense.
Creatura only got elected to the council, for Coulsdon West, in May, but he seems to have been given the chance to speak at almost every meeting since. Last night, he was one of the three chosen by the Tory leadership to respond to a Labour motion which belly-ached about government cuts.
“I’m confused,” Creatura began, with false modesty.
“You should join the LibDems then,” Labour’s former Tory MP, Andrew Pelling, heckled from across the chamber, demonstrating how out-of-touch he has become with modern politics. These days, confused Tories desperate to stay in work join UKIP.
Creatura struggled on. And on. It was all deeply dull, he failed to make a single memorable point, and Croydon Council’s faltering Am-Dram version of PMQs continued for another 20 minutes or so discussing a motion that will never achieve anything. Labour – who have 40 councillors to the Tories’ 30 – out-shouted the opposition to “win” their motion. And that’s half an hour of my life I’ll never get back.
“You’d think that Creatura was the only person allowed to speak… and you may be right,” our Tory source grumbled later.
The whole stage-managed nonsense of last night’s full council meeting had been rendered even more meaningless because earlier in the day Tony Newman, the council leader, had headed off the Purley Pool protest by agreeing to delay any closure of the pool. Pressed on his plans for the facility, Newman refused to provide any specifics. It is clearly too much to expect a Town Hall politician to give a straightforward decision at a meeting of full council.
There were the usual questions from the public, dominated by the well-organised Purley Pool campaigners, prompted and guided by local Tories, including O’Connell and the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Croydon South, Chris Philp. Much of the sting of their questioning had also been drawn by the announcement earlier in the day.
But woe-betide you as a Council Tax-payer if you try to ask anything of your elected representatives that they don’t want to answer.
One question, about the possibility of Croydon buying our way out of the incinerator agreement with Viridor, got this deliberately unhelpful answer: “The council will not be spending any money on renaming East Croydon station.”
And when the questioner sought a proper answer to their substantive point, they were ruled out-of-order… Classy, Croydon.
The #WadGate report – into how Mike Fisher managed secretly to add £13,000 to his council leader’s allowances last year – was on the agenda, but went undiscussed. How convenient. For both sides. And for Elvery and Belvir.
But Fisher himself was there and, for the first time since being forced to quit as Tory leader over #WadGate, he spoke at a council meeting.
The Conservative group had put up a motion bemoaning inequalities in services across the borough (seriously; they either have no memory, or no shame). The paperwork ahead of the meeting showed no named proposer and the seconder as Jason Cummings. But in the meeting, it was Fisher and Croydon Tories’ resident bruiser, Phil Thomas, who took up the matter.
Tim Pollard, Fisher’s successor as group leader, was there, though you’d hardly notice. The old line about Geoffrey Howe and “being savaged by a dead sheep” sprang to mind when, with all the oration skills of a village bank manager, Pollard laid out his four-point plan for Purley Pool. Or something. I may have nodded off.
Thomas, though, has more front than Margate.
It was Thomas who, for eight years, presided over a massive decline in the standard of street cleansing in the borough, who withdrew the bulky items collection service (which has created much of the resulting fly-tipping problems), and it was Thomas who halved residents’ bin collections to once a fortnight. But according to Thomas, only since last May has he noticed that, “Streets in the south and the centre of the burra are covered in litter.”
With his tie – intriguingly in the party colours of UKIP – undone as if he’d arrived straight from the pub in Pontypool, Thomas offered some intriguing insights into what is being discussed away from full council meetings, such as a plan to abandon free garden waste collections (a cost-cutting policy Sutton has already implemented), and the suggestion that given a choice of a public pool to close, Newman had chosen Purley ahead of South Norwood – which happens to be in his own Woodside ward.
With these revelations, Thomas managed to confirm two things.
First, Newman’s stated intention of maintaining “continuity” among senior council staff is doing him and his new administration no favours whatsoever.
And second, all the real decisions and discussions about the running of our council are taking place far away from the waste of time that is Croydon’s full council meetings.
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