CROYDON COMMENTARY: The council’s Fairness Commission appears to be struggling to recruit resident volunteers. ROD DAVIES suggests it may be because the Town Hall has a widening credibility gap
Having attended a number of pan-Croydon residents or community meetings and various “community consultation” events, it occurs to me that, while the current Labour administration is well-meaning, there are some fundamental issues to be addressed by the council if it wants to progress this notion of greater resident engagement in the promotion of core values.
A recurring observation from various residents and community groups is the absence of professional council officers. While these officers are the actual authors of many proposals, over the years they have appeared to be very averse to engaging with Croydon residents. This is in stark contrast with other local authorities where officers are expected to turn out to engage with residents, and their terms of employment specifically includes the requirement to attend out-of-hours meetings across the borough.
What does occur is either elected councillors turn up to the meeting (they are generally hard-working and publicly spirited individuals, but they do not have the professional technical knowledge to be able to explore issues fully), or the events are run by consultants (who have no real knowledge of the background of a situation). To date, the consultant-facilitated events have been “blank sheet” consultations where residents are asked to express their “desires”, without any reference to what constraints exist.
So, at one event I attended, a number of local residents, I would guess aged somewhere between 65 and 75, expressed their desire that all future housing should be developed along the lines of what exists, that being Victorian terraced houses. This may well be desirable, but it’s not an effective nor achievable solution to the housing crisis as Croydon simply doesn’t have enough space and salaries are far too low to afford them.
The entirety of this part of the consultation was completely meaningless. Had the council’s planning officials been in attendance to explain the constraints and the demand for housing, the idea of serried ranks of pseudo-Victorian Artisans Dwelling Act housing would have died a death, and there might have been a more useful expression of what people want within what is achievable.
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 in practical terms is indifferent to the wishes and needs of the community. If – as is often stated – officers do not feel obliged to respond to residents’ requests and be truly answerable to the public, then there is a flawed culture.
What hope can there be for a Fairness Commission if the organisational culture behind it is so flawed?
As is frequently reported here on Inside Croydon, there are regular questions about the propriety of council decisions. If Nathan Elvery, the current council chief executive, secured his position without an open recruitment process where residents could be certain that the best person was appointed to the post, why should they believe that a Fairness Commission is likely to deliver “fairness” in real terms?
Cynically, they might reasonably state that if the recruitment of the CEO was not transparent and fair, then doesn’t that suggest that everything – all council strategies and policies – emanating from that appointment will be characterised by the same process?
Thus what credibility could a Fairness Commission have, and isn’t there the every present likelihood that the residents on the panel become little more than rubber stamps to approve behind closed doors decisions?
This is not to claim that any decision by the council has been specifically covert, unfair or corrupt. But if the council wants to engage with residents more effectively, it needs to get its own house in order and start to build credibility with the communities it works for.
- Rod Davies is an East Croydon resident and member of the East Croydon Community Organisation
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