CROYDON COMMENTARY: Suddenly, Croydon is being showered in money from the local council. STEVEN DOWNES suggests that it is the Town Hall leadership paying for their mistakes, usually with your money
Council leader Tony Newman may be thinking he’s giddy with success.
More likely, he’s just getting dizzy from the number of U-turn pirouettes he and his kitchen cabinet at Croydon Council have been performing to overcome their blundering over some of their recent policy initiatives, and the resultant swathes of negative publicity his Labour administration has been receiving.
In the end, Newman’s Labour group is having to resort to chucking money at things, and hoping it’ll all work out OK in the end.
With their multiple petitions and badly sung versions of Land of Hope and Glory, the shameless opportunists among the local Tories have been very successful at embarrassing the Labour council at every turn, whether it be over street trading licences, their own ill-conceived scheme to build on a Coulsdon town centre car park, house building plans for Shirley Oaks, or the future of the Fairfield Halls.
Only a truly shambolic political organisation, surely, can turn a £30 million investment in a local arts venue into a PR disaster. But that’s what has happened in Croydon under Newman.
What has followed amounts to policy-making on the hoof, and yet again shows that when Newman, Mark Watson and Mr and Mrs Scott – councillors Alison Butler and Paul Scott – need some extra cash to smooth away any political problems of their own creation, they can always find something to act as a sop to one interest group or another.
SOP 1: £500,000 for Surrey Street
“My ambition,” ahh, there’s that word again, “is to see Surrey Street rival the best streets markets,” said Mark Watson, the council cabinet member, in announcing the latest effort to pull the old place up by its boot-straps.
Let’s just hope that the council keeps a better grip on the purse strings than it did over the Portas Pilot four years ago, when £100,000 was somehow frittered away, with the long-established stall-holders of Surrey Street complaining that they felt no benefit at all from that government funding. Even Toni Letts, the Labour cabinet member for business, has admitted at a public council meeting that she has no idea where the Portas money was spent.
With Newman’s council caught out over Boxpark, and the £3million public loan and beneficial terms for the trendy shipping container operators, to the commercial disadvantage of long-standing Croydon businesses, and over the (entirely reasonable) increase in street trading licence fees, Labour has decided to splash the cash down the town centre’s sadly declining street market.
That this is a rabbit out of the hat, and not any part of a concerted policy initiative, is demonstrated by the complete absence of any campaigning on the issue in advance by Marina Ahmad, Labour’s London Assembly candidate for Croydon and Sutton.
Any properly thought-through political operation would have had Ahmad, and maybe even London Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan, in front of the television cameras on Surrey Street, meeting the traders, buying a “pound-a-bowl” bunch of bananas or vegetables for the photographers, all in advance of any such announcement, to maximise the political impact and demonstrate that Labour candidates can deliver for the people and small businesses, even before a vote is cast. But not in Tony Newman’s Croydon.
The matter of how this £500,000 is spent – to help off-set the commercial advantages handed out to Boozepark up the road at East Croydon – has yet to be decided. That, too, probably indicates quite how rushed the announcement of the cash injection is. Watson is staging a meeting for locals and businesses to attend at short notice tonight. Early indications from those who live and work on Surrey Street is that there are many deep-seated social issues affecting the area which will need far more than a few bits of bunting and a couple of pop-up “eateries” to resolve.
SOP 2: £160,000 for the Ambition Festival
Another rabbit from the hat on Monday night, also linked to Boxpark. Suddenly, after Boozepark was exposed as having favourable terms determined by a council employee who’s now a Boxpark employee, one of those key terms – the council hiring eight container spaces in the development – has been dropped.
“What does the council need with eight units in Boxpark anyway?” one Tory councillor asked on Monday night. They never got an answer, because the council has (conveniently) ditched that part of the sweetheart deal, which was brokered on the watch of executive director Jo Negrini, who is rapidly becoming much more expensive for Croydon than her six-figure salary suggests.
So the money saved there will now be re-utilised on an arts and culture festival over the summer. There’s just growing doubt that any part of the Ambition Festival will be staged in or around Boozepark, if it misses its hoped-for opening date.
To oversee the festival this year, instead of a member of the Town Hall’s dynamic press team, Croydon Council – in the midst of a staff redundancy process remember – has gone out and hired the assistant chief executive of Brighton and Hove City Council on a six-month secondment.
SOP 3: Croydon’s new creative director
Paula Murray’s appointment was announced this morning by press release. The post looks like it could be the thick-end of another hundred grand of council spending (assuming that none of the Ambition Festival budget is used to pay her wages).
It appears to be a strange career move for Murray, who has been No2 at Brighton city council for just three years, and has given that up for a short-term gig in south London. Whether her role might be expanded or extended, remains to be seen. The press release mentions “an initial six-month secondment”, so Murray’s length of stay in Fisher’s Folly could depend on her ability to land grants from the Arts Council, the various lottery funds or sponsors.
Murray’s appointment, less than a week since the deal was finally agreed to close the Fairfield Halls for two years for its extensive refit, is surely a sop to the arts lobby and petitioners.
Whether the appointment will provide support to Timothy Godfrey, the cabinet member for the arts, or undermine his position within Newman’s increasingly cliquey team, only time will tell.
“Brighton is renowned for its vibrant culture, so to entice a key player behind these ongoing successes to Croydon will help us further widen our cultural and artistic offer,” is what Godfrey was saying today via the council’s press office.
“Paula brings huge experience that will be key to Croydon’s regeneration, especially in delivering the exciting plans for Fairfield Halls and leading the follow-up to last year’s Ambition Festival.”
SOP 4: The £148,000 bike race that didn’t cost us anything. Honest, guv
And this week Newman displayed a desperate desire to re-write history, when after announcing a second year of the low-grade cycle race series being staged in Croydon, the council leader now started to claim that the 2015 race cost the borough’s Council Tax-payers just £1,721.
Or, as Newman incompetently put in a tweet, 1,721p – which would have been a real bargain.
Last year it was widely reported that the council spent £148,000 to stage one night’s bike racing with the Pearl Izumi Race Series, the bulk of that money being paid to the organisers (lucky them).
Nine months after the event, and Newman has started to display some retrospective accounting skills, the kind of which were previously thought to be the preserve of Mike #WadGate Fisher.
Now, Newman wants us to believe, the bill wasn’t £148,000 but “only” £107,731. And most of that was off-set by sponsorship.
Who were those sponsors?
According to the council’s own press release last year, they included: Fairfield Halls, Transport for London, Laing, Skanska, Veolia and … cue drum roll … Croydon Council!
So Fairfield Halls (recipients of nearly £1 million a year in public subsidy from Croydon Council), John Laing, the builders of Croydon’s £140 million council offices, Veolia, our street sweepers, and Skanska, our street-lighting contractors, all paid money to Croydon Council towards the costs of staging this event. Out of the income and profits they’ve been making out of … Croydon Council.
There was no cost-benefit analysis conducted on the event last year, and today the council is regurgitating a claim that 12,500 spectators were around the course which was estimated – or guessed at – by the race organisers, the very people who have most to gain by inflating the importance and impact of their own event. None of this was ever subjected to any independent scrutiny, which when it involves tens of thousands of pounds of public money, is something which to any reasonable and objective observer would be judged to come close to incompetence and maladministration.
The spin this week over the 2016 race has all been about saving face for council leader Newman. Maybe this year he, or Negrini, will remember to commission some independent researchers to monitor the impact of the cycle race, so that the Council Tax-payers who are footing the bill for this minor sporting event will be able assess the value for money with facts, rather than the council’s own bullshit.
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