Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission has published its report. WALTER CRONXITE has read it, so that you don’t have to
When it came to publishing the expensively compiled Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission’s report, Jonathan Clark, the Bishop and the Commission’s chair, was out of town and unavailable to be interviewed by Inside Croydon today. He must have known something in advance.That the work of his Commission, published today, should be used to justify the use of volunteers to carry out council services really ought not to be a surprise. But the £200,000 spent on the Commission might have relieved the need for at least some of those council cuts.
Other, less sceptical, media, had been provided with embargoed copies of the interim report. Croydon’s Labour-run council even released it to some of the louder lobbyists, including a prominent supporter of Tory MP Gavin Barwell. The same courtesy – what might be regarded as an “opportunity” – was denied to the majority of our 70 elected councillors, both Labour and Conservative. That hardly seems fair. Or democratic.
But that’s how far Croydon Council has come in the 18 months since Tony Newman led Labour to Town Hall election victory on a platform promising a more “open and transparent” local authority.
His Commission has hardly had a smooth journey to this point, with a boycott by the Tories of what was supposed to be a cross-party project, and one high-profile member of the Commission quitting almost before they began their work, which all started later than scheduled and also delivered this report later than had been expected. The Commission’s “engagement” with Croydon’s “youth” was badly ill-conceived and woeful in delivery. In the end, what we have got with the report is exactly what was expected: a lash-up of well-meaning good intentions, and a lot of woolly feel-good sentiments.
Had it been served up as a CV to Lord Sugar on The Apprentice, chances are he’d summarise it thus: a load of old bollocks.
The over-bearing and undemocratic influence of one or two organisations in the running of Croydon has been a serious issue for decades. The composition of the Commission appeared to reinforce this, with the local vested interests represented on a panel including developers Westfield (it’s amazing what £1 billion-worth of promises of jam tomorrow can buy), and senior figures closely associated with Croydon Council and the council-influenced Croydon Voluntary Action (because both bodies have done such a good job of things in recent years).
The Commission says that it has heard the views of 3,000 residents, though there’s little evidence in the report of this, beyond the testimonies of a handful, including some of the vested interests. The 60-page report is subject to considerable padding, with delightful full-page pictures of smiling kids and the roof tops of the soon-to-be-demolished Whitgift Centre. But the written content is largely what some regard as “Mom and apple pie”, or others might describe, in the words of Basil Fawlty, as “statements of the bleedin’ obvious”.
The surveying of Croydon’s populace for the Commission needs to be subjected to some serious, and critical, scrutiny. Answers to naive or leading questioning do not inform the public debate. Empty anecdotes that sound like they are borrowed from an ad for sportswear are really not much help.
For instance, who would not have guessed that the majority of people in Croydon think it is important to ensure fair opportunities for all? The report does not address the rather more worrying statistic, by deduction, that 44 per cent of Croydon residents said that they do not think that this is important. Who are these people living in our midst?
Early intervention for social “issues” is suggested. Who could possibly disagree with that? Just where’s the money going to come from to ensure that it happens?
Anyone who was not impressed by President Gaga – George Dubya Bush – when he was in the White House will probably be equally unimpressed by the Croydon Commission’s adoption of his “Leave No Child Behind” slogan. Again, here the report amounts to nothing more than an expression of unarguable good intentions over any real innovation or solution.
It really is Sunday school stuff.
“Power to communities”: sounds like code for what has gone on at Lambeth Council over the past decade or so, with a “co-operative” council that withdraws funding for libraries and parks, and expects volunteers to take up the slack to provide what have hitherto been local authority services. Trouble is, on issues such as Assets of Community Value to try to keep much-loved local pubs open and planning consent for bookies in our town centres, Croydon is a council with officials who steadfastly refuse to even listen to communities, never mind cede any power to them.Some suggest that to increase volunteering in this borough, there is a need to remove the stranglehold over the sector which council-backed Croydon Vountary Action has had. This, though, is not suggested in the Commission report, possibly because one of the Commissioners is CVA vice-chair Brian Stapleton…
The over-riding feeling any careful examination of this interim report leaves is that it is a very superficial and not very good piece of work. It is badly written. There is not even an executive summary of recommendations, which really ought to be standard.
It lacks data, and it fails to offer any methodology for measuring unfairness, perceived or otherwise. It is hardly a Rowntree Report.
Bishop Clark had at least left an introductory address for the report: “There are many things that impact on the borough, like high house prices and changes to tax and beneﬁts that are forcing families to move out of central London,” he wrote, “which we cannot control.”
They are our italics.
At a stroke, the Bishop highlights how utterly futile the whole Opportunity and Fairness Commission really has been, except as an exercise in justifying shifting ever more council services into the voluntary sector.
He wrote: “But at a time when budgets for local public services like policing and adult social care are also being cut every year – and Croydon Council receives signiﬁcantly lower funding than many other London boroughs”, though not so badly that council leader Tony Newman couldn’t find £200,000 to pay for this pet project in pointlessness, “we know we have to think and act differently by making much better use of the gifts and skills of everyone who lives and works in the borough.”
Such Blairite notions from Progress, and Lambeth South MP Steve Reed OBE’s “co-operative” council model, are just soooo 2014. In the time between the setting up of Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission and its delivering this lash-together of platitudes and empty slogans, Corbynmania has happened.
“It all amounts to a costly focus group exercise,” one Tory councillor told us today. “We’re just glad we had nothing to do with it.”
His Conservative group leader, Tim Pollard, sounded more bemused than usual. “It’s hard to see the game-changer in there,” he told the local freepaper. “It was always going to be a tough ask to think thoughts that haven’t been thought quite a lot of times over the last decade.” Don’t expect many light bulb moments from our Tim, then.
“The money should not have been spent in the first place, and reserved for the core services that people actually use,” Pollard added. With good reason.
The one “newish” suggestion in the Commission’s report is a sort of Bedroom Tax reverse ferret, that the council offer 190 quid a week to home-owners to adopt a homeless person by providing them with a roof over their head in a spare room (after accepting the full 10 per cent MP’s pay rise, Steve Reed OBE might welcome the extra cash, if he hasn’t already taken in a family of Syrian refugees in his four-bedroom house in the Shirley hills).
The suggestion is idealistic, and probably so impractical that the number of take-ups could never justify the set-up costs.
In fairness, it is worth considering this all as another missed opportunity: Inside Croydon spoke to a member of the housing department in the council’s offices (cost to build: £140 million, in case you’d forgotten). The £200,000 spent on the Opportunity and Fairness Commission was mentioned.
“We could have brought at least a dozen empty council properties back into use with that sort of money,” they told us.
Which makes the vacuous report produced for Newman’s pet project seem all the greater waste.
- If, after all that, you still remain curious, the Opportunity and Fairness Commission report can be accessed online here
- Inside Croydon Events: for dates and links to what’s happening in and around Croydon, updated daily, click here
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