So now we know.
The Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission (as it has now finally resolved to be snappily titled) had its first meeting last night, where it revealed the members of the commission – the “commissioners” – and its finalised terms of reference.
According to the report submitted to the council cabinet more than six months ago, this independent body, supposedly at arm’s length from the council and politicians, is supposed to “make a particular effort to reach out to people with multiple needs who often find it hard to make their voices heard, so that they have every opportunity to be engaged in its work and to influence council priorities”.
And who are the commissioners who have been picked to “reach out” to the people of Croydon who “find it hard to make their voices heard”. Why, they include:
- a Croydon Labour councillor
- the recently retired deputy chief executive of Croydon Council
- a director of the £1 billion shopping mall developers, Westfield
- the deputy chairman of the council-funding dependent Croydon Voluntary Action
- the husband of a Labour council candidate (who’s self-penned biog describes himself as “one of the most inspirational and entrepreneurial men of the time”), and
- a public relations exec who once deliberately misled local politicians in order that she could provide a public platform for the National Front.
So no chance whatsoever of this Fairness Commission being overly influenced by the existing and self-perpetuating Croydon Establishment that has managed to get the borough to the state it is in today? Of course not! Much.
It may sound a touch cynical at such an early stage in the Commission’s endeavours, but Jonathan Clark, the Bishop of Croydon who chairs this body, could end up becoming a saint if he manages to pull-together a worthwhile report from such inauspicious beginnings.
With a lavish budget of £200,000 (to pay for the hall hire and to out-source the commission’s admin), Clark and his Labour council-dominated commissioners have hardly come flying out of their starting blocks.
The Fairness Commission was a manifesto pledge by Labour last year. Approved at the council cabinet meeting on June 30, the Fairness Commission was supposed to have had its first meeting last September and by now to have delivered its first interim report.
Someone in Croydon Council’s opulently appointed £144 million head offices has clearly not been pulling their finger out to get the Fairness Commission up and running.
Labour’s leader of the council, Tony Newman, has invested a good deal of personal prestige and political capital in this “ambitious for Croydon” project. It is his name on the report to cabinet – as you can read here Cabinet report on Fairness Commission – alongside his new bestie mate, Nathan Elvery, the council’s CEO.
With Elvery’s former colleague, Hannah Miller, and Newman’s fellow ward councillor, Hamida Ali, both appointed as commissioners, you might surmise that there’s little chance of the Commission diverting from the course chosen for it by Newman and Elvery.
And the Commission has already had its knock-backs.
Back in June, when Newman’s council was still in the first flush of its post-election honeymoon period, his report to cabinet recommending the Commission listed an impressive array of independent public policy experts, all from outside Croydon, who might head-up the body.
Newman and Elvery’s report confidently named: Matthew Taylor, a former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research; Julia Unwin, the chief exec of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Prof Sir Michael Marmot, the former chair of the strategic review of health inequalities in England; Andy Hull, the former head of Islington’s Fairness Commission; or John Hills, the professor of social policy and director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at the London School of Economics; and Naomi Eisenstadt, a senior research fellow at the department of education and social policy at Oxford University.
Not one of these impressive-looking people proved to be available to help to bring fairness to Croydon.
And Newman’s attempt to finesse the borough’s Conservatives into being part of his grand scheme have also been thwarted.
His report six months ago noted that, “…it is proposed further political representation on the Commission include Councillor Hamida Ali and Councillor Sara Bashford”, Bashford being a senior Tory councillor (as well as being a constituency worker for local MP Gavin Barwell).
But Bashford was conspicuous by her absence from the line-up of Fairness commissioners announced last night. Croydon’s Tories, having criticised the decision to spend £200,000 on the exercise at a time when money’s tight, have now distanced themselves entirely from the Fairness Commission.
With Bienosa Ebite and Pat Reid both on the commission together with Woodside councillor Ali, it will be impossible to portray the body as anything other than one squarely based with the Labour group and in the north of the borough.
Back in June, Newman’s report ran to nine pages on what the Fairness Commission would do and achieve. “… Secure a stronger social contract between the people of the borough and develop a cohesive community with opportunities for all who live and work here,” it said, specifying (the report was a bit light on specifics) that the Commission’s recommendation should enable the council to ensure “that funding decisions are made in ways that advance fairness and reduce inequality”.
The Commission, we were told, should be a “critical friend”, and would “shape policy to address inequality and deprivation in the borough and direct resources”. Without any Conservatives – not to mention overtly LibDem, Green or UKIP party members on the Commission – it is hard to see how anyone will ever be convinced that its eventual recommendations are nothing other than an elaborate attempt to justify Labour spending plans in Labour-voting wards.
The Tory motion put up at last Monday’s full meeting of the council, which demonstrated the brassiest of brass neck as it accused Labour of creating a north-south divide in Croydon, was surely devised to begin the process of dragging the £200,000 Fairness Commission into disrepute.
If Bishop Clark is to minimise that sort of partisan criticism of the Commission’s efforts, then the appointment of representatives of the broader public, “resident commissioners”, could be key. The process of applying – yes, this is not based on some shadowy Masonic selection process – was also opened up last night. “They will be ‘Ambassadors for Fairness’,” we are told.
If you are considering applying, make sure that your membership card of the Glee Club is up-to-date, though. The four resident commissioners must show, “Evidence of making positive change”, and have “Enthusiasm for the work of the Commission”. Application details can be found here.
June’s council report on what the Commission might achieve has now been boiled down to just 370 words in its Terms of Reference.
You can read it on the Commission’s website here.
Notice how the last point represents a bit of a fudge? The original intention was for an interim report to appear in September 2015. The slow start means that it could be as late as May 2016 (that’s “early” 2016, isn’t it?) before any report is placed in the public domain.
“Croydon is an amazing borough but it has the potential to be even better,” Bishop Clark has said in his opening remarks to the Commission’s “foundation report”, also released last night.
The report has all the hallmarks of a piece of work by Grey Label, the council’s long-time outsourced PR spinners: lots of what designers call “artistic white space”, and what ordinary people would call “padding”; lots of imprecise, but pastel-coloured, graphs; and one or two very dubious stats. At least it means we can see where 1 per cent of the Commission’s £200,000 budget has been spent.
You can see the report for yourself here: croydon-ofc-foundation-report
There is not a single word, never mind a whole page or even a paragraph, in this report about the standards of ethics and governance in Croydon, something some people might find odd for what is supposed to be a “Fairness Commission”.
Clark calls this foundation report “the starting point for a conversation”, the sort of phrase which scores 8.9 on the Richter Scale for public servant PowerPoint speak, and which is sadly so familiar to everyone who has had to endure various council “initiatives”, misfiring “Croydon: The Future” projects and failed city bids (two).
But Bishop Clark is also shrewd enough to state, “I know that the acid test for our Commission is how it changes lives. It can only do this if it engages with residents, businesses, community groups and service providers, builds on what is good in the borough and learns from what other areas have done well too. Change happens by magnifying and supporting the best ideas and practice, from the bottom up.”
And Inside Croydon will be following the Commission’s progress, from the bottom.
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