The peasants are revolting.
They may not just yet quite be at the point of storming Fisher’s Folly with lighted torches and armed with pitchforks, but dissatisfaction with the way Croydon Council is run and the manner in which public money is squandered on unaccountable talking shops and quasi-autonomous voluntary bodies has brought together the borough’s various residents in a way never seen before.
A meeting was staged in Braithwaite Hall earlier this month, attended by representatives of many of Croydon’s more than 50 residents’ associations, at which they agreed by an overwhelming majority to come together to form an umbrella organisation.
One of their first decisions was to boycott the council’s latest initiative, a “Croydon Neighbourhood Partnership Board”, on the basis that the council’s proposals that this board should include just four residents’ representatives could never properly represent the views and interests of the whole of the borough.
The mobilisation of the residents’ associations is the latest example of how Croydon Council, and the borough’s 70 councillors, while they obsess on the billions of pounds that might be spent on high-profile developments in the borough, are meanwhile seen to be failing the vast majority of the people they are supposed to serve.
As one of the attendees at the meeting said, “We are worried that the council is trying to reduce its contact with the residents’ associations by going to four representatives and then claim that they had consulted with all RAs and residents in Croydon.”
Someone else described the partnership board as “nothing more than a tick-box exercise”.
Another said, “Many residents know nothing about the council’s Fairness Commission, while others think that it’s outcome is already decided or that it’s just another talking shop which won’t change anything. One thing seems certain: it is another council body, set up at considerable expense, which will get poor resident engagement.”
The mood of the Braithwaite Hall meeting was that, ever since the council had cut the (modest) funding for Neighbourhood Partnerships in 2011, it had broken a vital link with the borough’s communities and that its latest proposal for the Partnership Board with just four resident representatives was wholly inadequate.
Someone asked, “How do we know how these four people are going to be selected? They might end up being hand-picked stooges for the council.”
The RAs want representatives of all of their organisations to be included in such meetings, which they also want to be attended by the council’s chief executive and the relevant directors. That is a degree of accountability which has been missing from Croydon Council’s affairs for a very long time.
At the Braithwaite Hall meeting, the residents’ associations agreed that, to maintain their new body’s independence from Croydon Council, they would not apply for nor accept any funding from the council or its various funding agencies, such as Croydon Voluntary Action.
To the apparent frustration of some at the meeting, other organisations that have been established in the past couple of years on the premise of being community-based, and receiving thousands of pounds of tax-payers’ money, have later been exposed as being a front for UKIP and other vested interests.
A second meeting of the new residents’ forum is planned, which will offer an open invitation to representatives of RAs from across the borough.
The objectives on the agenda include “to gain stronger representation and better outcomes on key strategic issues that affect all communities through working with one united community voice, and supporting local residents groups to develop and share good practice”.
According to one of those who attended the initial meeting, “There is a fundamental culture issue at the heart of Croydon’s public administration. If the council’s professional employees won’t step out of their offices to engage with residents, it is indicative of an administration that is in practical terms indifferent to the wishes and needs of the community.”
Symptomatic of that was that the council-owned venue for the RAs’ meeting was organised by council officials. But no microphones had been provided (as the council had said would be made available), at times making it difficult to run the meeting in a business-like manner.
The mobilisation of the residents’ associations is an intriguing display of disaffection with established democracy in the borough. Croydon has many well-resourced and well-organised residents’ associations, particularly in the south of the borough, where the expertise and skills of lawyers, accountants and other professionals have often been successful in ensuring that their neighbourhoods have not been overlooked.
In some wards, such as in Addiscombe and Coulsdon, neighbourhood forums have been established which provide for regular meetings with the local councillors, which have been working well.
Nevertheless, as with all voluntary groups, outside one or two dedicated individuals who might devote large chunks of their spare time or their retirement to the interests of their community, some RAs need more help. Until very recently, Coulsdon was served with three active residents’ associations, but the Coulsdon West RA has struggled of late to replace key officers: seven committee positions remain vacant, including chairman and deputy chairman, while the secretary is listed as “acting”; the association’s website has not been updated for more than six months.
Any new body that brings together the borough’s residents’ associations may be able to assist with some shared tasks, reducing the workload of key individuals, while also providing a better, strategic overview of issues the length and breadth of the borough on matters such as planning, traffic management and parking policies, waste management and schools.
And the council’s scheduled meeting this week to establish its “Neighbourhood Partnership Board” could be in for a rude awakening.
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