Tony Newman has got his bucket and spade ready for a weekend break at the seaside. As WALTER CRONXITE delivers his mid-term report on Croydon’s Labour council, he’s not expecting the Town Hall leader to bring him back a stick of rock
Many of Croydon’s 40 Labour councillors are off on a jolly tomorrow and Saturday, down to Eastbourne for the weekend. The seaside break is indirectly subsidised by the borough’s Council Tax-payers, because the bills are being met out of the councillors’ Town Hall “allowances”.
The Labour “away day” gives them the opportunity to look at what they have achieved as they approach the half-way point in their four-year administration.
Tony Newman, the council leader, heads for Eastbourne armed with his own scorecard of what manifesto promises have been implemented since May 2014.
After 18 months of running the Town Hall, Newman has been able to list nine “achievements”. It makes for modest reading. And it may not be a strong enough track record to persuade voters to back Labour in enough numbers when the next local elections are held in 2018.
That’s certain to be the thought occupying many of Newman’s team as they gather in Eastbourne.
Too much of what Newman has listed as “achievements” are really just gesture politics, little more than a quick photo-op without much relevance to the majority of Croydon’s residents, who will decide the next local elections.
Of course, some are worthy, but it is doubtful just how far the re-launched Croydon credit union is making it possible for many local people to escape the grasp of the big four banks to get credit, or how the council paying a subscription for White Ribbon town status is of much help to the victims of domestic abuse when they try to seek help from much-reduced services.
Newman is clearly not a student of Marx. That’s Groucho Marx, who famously said that he would never consider joining any club which would have him as a member. For under Newman, Croydon’s club memberships provide another modest boast. “Croydon’s Labour Council has joined the ‘CO-OP Innovation Network’ of Council’s [sic] working closely with other Labour Councils from Plymouth to Edinburgh from Oldham to Lambeth”, his latest note states.
Bolting together a sentence which includes the words “Council”, “Lambeth” and “Co-op” might not be such a good idea any longer.
Outside of Steve Reed OBE and his devoted band of Progress zealots in Lambeth South, the co-op council model is increasingly discredited as merely being a means of getting council services to be delivered on the cheap by unpaid volunteers. Most recently, in Lambeth’s case, “Co-op Council” has become a by-word for its “omni-shambles” proposals to close down libraries or turning them into bookish gyms. Since May 2014, Croydon’s Labour council has done little to devolve power over services to its own users, according to the Reed blueprint. It seems unlikely that the Eastbourne away day will put forward ways to do so in the next two years.
Another “achievement” listed by Newman is the freeze in Council Tax, an election promise that has been delivered by Labour.
Truth be known, Council Tax levels these days are set more by central government than by local councillors, so Newman shouldn’t expect huge amounts of voter loyalty simply for not increasing the financial burden on their already strained household budgets.
In any case, there does not seem to be much chance of a Council Tax freeze in April 2016. A Council Tax increase of up to 1.9 per cent (the maximum that the Tory Government will allow), combined with further service cuts and a loss of 600 more jobs at the council offices in Fisher’s Folly, seems a more likely possibility.
Newman and his closest political aides – his deputy Alison Butler and her husband, Paul Scott; and Mark Watson – really do need to get a grip if they are to avoid taking all the flak locally for the cuts being handed down from the Conservative Government.
So far, Newman and his team has been out-manoeuvred time and again by the local Conservatives, who are quick to launch campaigns against the Town Hall’s cuts, leaving Croydon Labour looking politically flat-footed.
Talking of flat-foots, and of cuts, Newman’s been able to include on his list of “achievements” an extra couple of constables, paid for by the council, as promised to New Addington. Though whether the two PCs might have any impact on keeping the borough’s crime statistics down seems unlikely when at City Hall, the Tory Mayor of London is busily implementing ever more cuts in police numbers across the city.
Making Croydon a Living Wage borough and introducing the licensing of local landlords are two genuine achievements, though the latter is still subject to a possible legal challenge. In housing, though, the council is failing badly, delivering just a paltry 12 new homes since May 2014, in the midst of the housing crisis, though studio flats have also been leased at converted offices along the London Road.
Weak leadership within council departments and poor presentation of the policy saw the 20mph residential zones in the north of the borough nearly falter at its first hurdle, as the one-man band of Coulsdon-based Peter Morgan and his various online noms de plume almost secured a vote against the life-saving measure. Morgan’s motoring lobby did succeed in the abandonment of a road closure trial on Norbury Avenue. Since when, Croydon Labour’s traffic calming zeal seems to have waned. Parked, if you will.
Presentation has been an issue for this Labour council since it started. Ordering sloganising T-shirts before having a policy in place, or the staffing to implement it, has seen the street cleaning campaign of Newman’s deputy, Stuart Collins, struggling to keep pace with its own PR.
Under Tory councillor Phil Thomas, Croydon’s streets had deteriorated to a terrible degree; Collins’ conundrum was to deliver on the promises to fix that with ever-reduced resources.
In the midst of that, and while contending with contractor Veolia’s questionable standard of performance, Collins was advised by senior council staff to allow a revised waste collection programme to be introduced. Residents across the borough were livid that they’d been given little, if any, warning – another presentation issue from Fisher’s Folly’s useless publicity department – and the public were even more angry when many were left with festering rubbish in their wheelie bins at the height of summer for four, five, or even six weeks.
Labour’s reputation has been hurt very badly by this, and no amount of coloured pie charts showing how it only takes three days for the council to clear a fly-tip is likely to erase that discontent.
Election promises such as opposition to the Beddington Lane incinerator or Newman’s “blowing the books open” on the Tories spending £140 million to build the council’s over-priced offices at Fisher’s Folly have been forgotten. It is as if Croydon’s Labour council leader does not want to embarrass the borough’s real leader, chief executive Nathan Elvery, who was among the senior officers who oversaw the extravagant CCURV development and signed up Croydon to the £1 billion incinerator deal.
It is expected that Elvery will be among a handful of senior council staff who attend the Eastbourne get-away with the Labour councillors. But Elvery probably considers that he is there as much to ensure that the elected representatives keep in line, as to deliver his latest lecture by Powerpoint. Meanwhile, another Newman promise, of a more “open and transparent council”, also seems to have been forgotten. Now who might be behind that?
For Newman to set off for the south coast having listed only nine “achievements” in his own half-term report seems, literally, odd. Surely Newman could have found a 10th item to boast about to his loyal colleagues in Eastbourne this weekend?
It is in the absence from his list that, perhaps, Newman betrays the biggest disappointment from the first 18 months of his Labour council, the pet project in which he invested £200,000 of other people’s money and 100 per cent of his own political credibility.
The Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission was late in starting, missed its deadline for delivering its draft report, and managed to come up with a damp squib full of facile and mundane opinions, but lacking any data-based analysis. With the presence of a representative of Westfield among its commissioners and kept on a close rein by a former senior council official, the Fairness Commission has a serious credibility deficit. It has now descended into being little more than an over-resourced lobby group that talks with Croydon Voluntary Action about government funding streams.
Newman’s Fairness Commission has also managed to hand Croydon’s Tories a £200,000 political stick with which to beat Labour from now until May 2018, at a time when Labour ought to be focusing public attention on the many millions of pounds of cuts being handed down from the Conservative government at Westminster.
If Newman’s councillors at this weekend’s trip to the south coast are allowed to come up with ways to alter that narrative, then the chances are that the council leader will consider the weekend in Eastbourne public money well-spent.
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