CROYDON COMMENTARY: Our borough’s elected representatives are being increasingly marginalised by a system that places huge power in the hands of a handful of unaccountable officials, writes STEVEN DOWNES
Make the most of it at the Town Hall tonight.
For only the second time since March, there is actually going to be a meeting of our full council.
“This is the first Council meeting since July,” admits Tony Newman, the council leader, in the opening sentence of his report to the meeting. He’s clearly not embarrassed by this absence of council meetings, otherwise why would he draw attention to it?
Written in the style of a Year 5 “what did you do in the holidays” school essay, Newman manages to highlight how under-occupied he and his cabinet of 10 highly paid Labour councillors have been for the past six months. Council Tax-payers will note that the allowances bill for Newman and his cabinet comes in at a total of £450,000 per year, plus exes.
But then, Newman and his cabinet of democratically elected councillors are not really in charge of Croydon Council at all. The borough is increasingly dominated by its local civil servants, who at “executive director” level are all on six-figure salaries and generous pensions. With them firmly in charge, regular council meetings such as tonight’s are rendered irrelevant.
What is developing as a consequence is a chasm of unaccountability, in which senior council staff, such as Nathan Elvery, who was confirmed by Newman as CEO without the job ever being advertised, or the Borough Solicitor Julie Belvir, or the all-powerful head of planning, Jo Negrini, manage the borough’s affairs as they see fit, regardless of the views of the residents, and their councillors. If they are in the thrall of multi-billion-pound developers and land-owners, the public will probably only find out when it is too late.
Do you expect your local councillor to represent your views, or take up your case?
Many of them will try to do just that. But increasingly, under the cabinet system, Newman and his “top team” are simply rubber-stamping decisions taken by the council’s civil servants. Meanwhile, Croydon’s other 60 councillors, Labour as well as Conservative, become ever more distant from any real role in the running of our council.
A sign of this Ivory Tower existence of the council leadership might be seen in the manner in which Newman now deals with his correspondence.
Or rather, how he fails to deal with it.
Inside Croydon has heard worrying examples of how Newman – who is paid £53,223 per year as leader of the council – can’t even be bothered to reply to routine correspondence, whether from a resident or one of the borough’s MPs.
Remember in June 2014, just after Newman had led the Labour Party to election victory after eight years of Tory rule? Remember the “Don’t Mess With Croydon – Take Pride!” slogans and T-shirts, when Newman and his team were going to clean up our streets and make the conduct of Croydon Council more accountable, more transparent?
Well, if you haven’t noticed any real change in the state of your street – and why should you: the council is using exactly the same contractors, supervised by the same Town Hall officials, as before – then you should also not expect any change in the accountability of our council leadership, either.
It would be reasonable to expect the highest paid elected councillor at least to respond to his correspondence. Not to do so suggests a degree of laziness or rudeness, neither of which should be unacceptable.
One Purley resident, Dave Scott, has been in touch with Inside Croydon. He has written to Newman on three occasions in the past couple of months about the state of his street and the mess left by refuge collection contractors, Veolia. Scott has not received even the courtesy of an acknowledgement from the council leader. Not even an automated one, set up by the council’s IT team on Newman’s council-provided laptop or smart phone.
But worse than this, while businesses in Coulsdon are going to the wall because of a fall in trade caused by badly mishandled car park closures and road schemes, council leader Newman has not found the time in his busy schedule to reply to Chris Philp, the MP for Croydon South.
Philp told Inside Croydon before the weekend that he has written to Councillor Newman three times about the situation in Coulsdon, and he has not had a single response.
The extraordinary thing about the chaos in Coulsdon is that it ought to be a political gift for Newman and his Labour-controlled council.
Coulsdon’s wards are, of course, true-blue Tory, and nothing Newman or his council does in the next couple of years is likely to change that.
But the handing over of Cane Hill in a £250million “gift” of the land to house-builders Barratt’s was undertaken by the Tory Mayor of London, with the enthusiastic support of Croydon’s then Conservative council. The scheme to close Lion Green Road car park and develop it was also devised and approved by Croydon’s Tory councillors.
There ought to be considerable political capital for Newman and his Labour council if they were to fix the problems created by their predecessors, save the businesses and make life better for residents.
But might his reluctance to engage properly with the (new) MP be because Newman is in fact presiding over pretty much the same council officials who came up with this shambolic Coulsdon scheme in the first place, and to justify their existence and protect their positions, it is they who are determined to see it through?
There have been signs elsewhere in the borough that this may be the case.
In Norbury, an application for a community pub near the station was refused by the planning department, almost without any reason, and despite enthusiastic support from residents. The ward’s Labour councillors have been less than helpful, according to residents, although expecting veteran Councillor Maggie Mansell to engage via Twitter might be a bit of a stretch.
In Thornton Heath, even with the backing of Labour councillors, widespread opposition from residents to planning permission for yet another bookmaker was ignored, based almost entirely on misleading advice provided by council planning officials.
In Woodside, building work has begun on the Oasis Arena Academy school, despite the absence of certain permissions, and in breach of key planning conditions, while residents struggle to get to see their ward councillors, who happen to include Newman and his close friend, the planning committee chair, Paul Scott.
And in South Norwood, the planning department (again) opted not to exercise its powers to prevent the development of a pub into flats, despite the developer having been refused planning permission. And when residents sought to find a solution by seeking Asset of Community Value status for the pub, their efforts were thwarted by the council over a minor error on the paperwork.
In all these cases, it is the council officials who manage to implement what they see to be the policy – sometimes even ignoring decisions of the elected councillors on the planning committee – and usually to the detriment of local residents.
The vast majority of our elected councillors, meanwhile, are sidelined, impotent.
And so what does Newman do about this? Well, for tonight’s meeting he’s put forward a motion, as if he is running the debating society at a second-rate grammar school. The motion will state that Croydon is against the Tory Government imposing a £4 million in-year cut to the borough’s budget for unaccompanied asylum-seekers.
It is a motion that is hard to argue against – though presumably Newman is hoping that Tim Pollard and the Tory opposition will do just that, so that he can accuse them of being unfair to Croydon at some point in the future.
But above all else, it is also a motion which will achieve absolutely nothing for the residents of Croydon, except waste around 20 minutes of tonight’s meeting.
The Tories are no better. They, too, have put forward a political point-scoring motion for tonight, in which they express “regret” over the “culture of secrecy and lack of openness and transparency” of the Labour administration over certain constitutional changes, including one which allowed Croydon to borrow £109million over the summer and only inform the cabinet meeting after the deal was done.
There is, of course, an easy response to the Tories over this: Newman and his 39 Labour councillors can simply state “CCURV”, the speculative £450 million urban regeneration scheme using council buildings and land, instituted under the previous Conservative administration, the commercial details of which remained under lock and key, and far from “open” or “transparent”.
CCURV was the pet project of Elvery and his predecessor, Jon Rouse. Council officials appear to have remained protective of CCURV ever since, however much it will end up costing the Council Tax-payers in loan interest and other costs for a very developer-friendly arrangement.
There was a time, of course, when Tony Newman was in opposition that he was promising to “blow open the books” of CCURV and reveal its financial details for all to see. Since taking power, the people who really run the council – Elvery and his staff – have managed to prevent that happening.
In the interests of the openness and transparency which Croydon Conservatives so clearly desire, it is long overdue that Newman should deliver on at least one of his 2014 election promises.
- Steven Downes is the founder and editor of Inside Croydon
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