After a year’s work funded by £200,000 from the council, the Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission delivered its final report yesterday. Here, the commission chair, the Rt Rev Jonathan Clark, in an exclusive interview with STEVEN DOWNES, answers questions such as “Quite how Victorian do we have to get?”
Pictures by LEE TOWNSEND
The Bishop of Croydon couldn’t live any closer to the Croydon town centre, short of taking a penthouse apartment in one of the Poor Doors towers that are springing up nearby. And it is obvious that that sort of arrangement would never do for this churchman.
“It’s fairness of opportunity that people care about,” Jonathan Clark says early on in our conversation, “not of outcome.” And you can’t say fairer than that.
“A Better Croydon For Everyone” is the slogan adorning the pastel-shaded report on the Bishop’s desk in his very well-booked library in the sort of house which is definitively “old-school Croydon”: large, comfortable and suburban, despite its proximity to the Flyover and Fairfield Halls.
Sinking into his comfortable armchair, mug of black tea in hand, Clark gives a real sense that he does take the problems facing a rapidly changing Croydon very much to heart, and that he looked upon the Opportunity and Fairness Commission as, well, an opportunity to try to help.
But for all his smiling good grace and reassurances, there is also an overwhelming feeling that the Commission, and its slim report’s recommendations, lacked the tools to achieve much in the way of real transformational change.
It was not long before the Bishop was admitting that the Commission decided to not even consider possibly the biggest problem for the borough – the sheer unfairness of its local authority grant settlement from central Government.
The bald facts are there in the Commission’s report: neighbouring borough Lambeth gets £637 per person from the Government, while residents in larger, more populated Croydon receive just £378 per person. It is from that context that the majority of other social issues within Croydon, including health provision, housing, social deprivation, isolation, all addressed in the report, stem.
But the Opportunity and Fairness Commission opted to ignore that elephant in the room. “We’ve very deliberately not tried to engage with issues which are really important in Croydon but which we can’t do anything about,” the Bishop said. “So we’ve tried to focus on things which are important to Croydon and which the people of Croydon can make a difference to.
“So issues like the Government funding settlement for Croydon, as against inner London boroughs, is obviously a huge problem… We mention it, because it is part of the context. But it’s not like we say we need to lead rallies up to Whitehall.
“Because in a way, for me, that’s counter to the whole underlying narrative. That, for me, is about residents, businesses, etcetera, etcetera. Let’s look for what strengths we have, and build on those, rather than looking at weaknesses and deficits and looking for someone else to solve them.”
Given a rather large lemon, the Commission opted to make lemonade. Very watery lemonade, it has to be said.
It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Bishop, who was dealt a tough hand from the start. The Commission was loaded with vested interests, with its work overseen by one hand-picked Labour councillor and a former council deputy CEO, it had a representative of Westfield and someone from Croydon Voluntary Action – two bodies who might have been expected to provide evidence and be subject to scrutiny by such a commission, not necessarily to be authors of its report.
For all it’s good intentions, the Commission was politicised from Day One, when Croydon Tories refused to invest in it with the presence of one of their senior councillors.
And the borough’s biggest land-owners and richest charity, the Whitgift Foundation, who have commissioned the £1 billion redevelopment of their eponymous shopping centre and also possess the means to make significant social change within the borough, managed to meet with the Commission just once in the whole 14 months of its process. Just the once.
Bishop Clark, as you might expect, doesn’t quite see things that way. “We didn’t feel that there were questions we couldn’t ask. We didn’t feel we had to hold back, there was no sense of ‘Oh, you mustn’t go there’, there was no pressure put upon us in that way. We followed up the lines we wanted to follow and asked the questions we wanted to ask.
“I think what we’ve done is we’ve managed to get a really good amount of data from across Croydon – ordinary residents, people who work in the borough, employers. We’ve given ourselves enough time to reflect on that data and bring it together.
“Obviously the Commission was set up by the Labour administration, so they have more investment in it than the Tories do because they set it up.
“It’s not been completely non-cross-party. We have had Steve O’Connell come to some of our meetings and Tim Pollard. That doesn’t commit them to being supporters of the whole thing, that’s up to them.
“We haven’t been in the pocket of the Labour Party, and that’s one of the reasons the council commissioned The Campaign Company to conduct the research, rather than keeping it in-house, an independent organisation that isn’t beholden to the politicians,” the Bishop said.
The Campaign Company, it is fair to note at this stage, was founded by David Evans, formerly an assistant general secretary of the Labour Party, a confirmed Blairite whose current-day business undoubtedly welcomed a publicly financed contract worth £200,000 over a period of a year (and which belatedly has been described as costing “only” £130,000).
“I know that The Campaign Company are commissioned to do work for Tory councils and LibDem councils, too, if there are any of them left… if they were perceived as having a political bias, they certainly wouldn’t be commissioned by Tory councils,” was how the Bishop bats back that one.
“We have been independent of both Labour and Tory and we have talked to people who have their roots in either party, and it hasn’t been a problem.
“We haven’t been played. I haven’t been played.
“As far as I can see, as chair, we have not ended up being the mouthpiece of anyone’s agenda, including the council’s.”
The next local elections are in 2018, and if the council leader, Tony Newman, and his Labour group were hoping that the Opportunity and Fairness Commission was going to hand them some policy initiatives which could justify some vote-winning commitments, then they might be struggling.
The report suggests business rate rebates for employers who do the right thing and pay the London Living Wage, it suggests that spending £2million of public money on giving away free office space to one interest group is a “Good Thing” (although the Bishop was unable to tell how a claim of this group representing 1,000 businesses was ever checked or verified), it recommends increasing Council Tax, and it also recommends an increased reliance on volunteering. Lots of volunteering.
So just how Victorian do we have to be?
“The reduction in local authority funding is going to cause real problems, and the comparative reductions in health funding. Those are going to cause huge problems. I think the question we have been trying to answer is, ‘How do we move forward from there, rather than just going back?’
“We don’t want to go back to a model of the classic caricature of Victorian philanthropy, where rich people give to the deserving poor, and if you don’t happen to be ‘deserving’, well bad luck.
“That is the last thing that we want to see happening.
“What we are trying to encourage is people in communities to recognise the strengths that they do have and build on those. We’re also wanting to push at using the resources that are still around to create fairness in the way that people mostly see fairness, which is mostly about fairness of opportunity, rather than fairness of outcome.
“That was quite clear right from the initial findings, that that was what people in Croydon though fairness was. They’re no so bothered if people in Selsdon end up with larger houses than people in Fieldway. But they are quite bothered that being born in one place or another makes a 15-year difference to your life expectancy.”
And that, in terms of the funding of adult social care, is why the Bishop and the Commission recommends at least a 2 per cent increase in Council Tax in April.
“The Government has made it possible for councils to put a couple of per cent on Council tax to pay for adult social care. Interestingly, it would seem that an awful lot of local authorities are going to be doing that, including quite a lot of Tory ones. We think it probably has to happen, otherwise adult social care will almost disappear, and that would be much worse.”
Would 2 per cent be enough, though? “Possibly not,” Bishop Clark said, “but it’s what’s allowed.”
If you’re given lemons…
The Bishop’s ginger cat wanders in, and then wanders out, disinterested. Our allotted time is almost up, and questions of detail – How many residents’ groups did they speak to? How many residents’ groups are there, and what is their geographical spread? Who are the borough’s biggest private employers? What did respondents regard as the biggest barrier to volunteering? – are mostly straight-batted, because none of the data compiled for the report has been published.
It seems that, as a survey of fairness, or the lack of it, in the borough, the evidential detail is a little thin on the ground.
The Commission did speak to more people than any previous, similar exercise, at more than 3,000.
But even that translates to less than 1 per cent of Croydon’s population.
And I leave unable to shake off the feeling that, for all the best of intentions, the Commission was a bit of a missed opportunity.
- Click here to read the Opportunity and Fairness Commission’s full report
- Fairness Commission report recommends Council Tax increase
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