So that’s how eight years of Boris’s London reign ends – a public meeting in Croydon closes with a whole line of security heavies making sure no one actually speaks to Johnson, titters as meeting chairman Steve O’Connell announces that he has Mr Dick’s mislaid debit card, and the audience departs the poorly lit auditorium of the Fairfield Halls concert hall disappointed by a below par performance by a poorly briefed Mayor, irritated by political point scoring by non-Tory Assembly members and frustrated by a sense that politicians had spent the previous two hours doing what they are trained to do – not answer questions.
One audience member, Sue Kennett of Croydon, complained, to some applause, about how tiresome the party political point scoring was.
The audience filled only half the curtained-off concert hall. Many residents who came hoping to see the local council skewered on the closure for rebuilding of Fairfield and the building of homes and travellers’ sites in Shirley will have left downhearted by the only sparse applause when these questions were raised and by the nonplussed, confused Mayoral responses that in the end backed the local council.
Some of the questions, and the attendant Twitter chatter, seemed to be better orchestrated than the London Mozart Players (though some might say that that’s not so difficult). O’Connell tried to provide riders to each pointed local question, but it seemed that he had not had access to the Mayor to brief him on the political importance of the questions.
Johnson fumbled his way to backing the closure of the Fairfield Halls by saying that he would work with Croydon Council to keep the closure to a minimum and to protect jobs (no matter that he’ll be out of office by May, and the two-year refit doesn’t begin until July).On housing, Johnson said that you can’t both ask for more homes and then oppose development, although he did suggest that all building should be done on brownfield sites; he was clearly gloriously ignorant of the draft Croydon Plan for building 651 homes on the green spaces surrounding the Shirley Oaks estate.
Johnson was careful not to say anything controversial about travellers, though Tom Copley and Fiona Twycross, Assembly Members sitting close by on stage, heard the Mayor being disparaging of the traveller lifestyle in a off-the-cuff aside that he never thought would be heard: “What have they got against bricks and mortar?” But then, this is the same Bullingdon Boris who laughed and joked while stepping over a homeless person on a previous visit to Croydon.
Johnson’s three-time promised tram extension to Crystal Palace – in 2008, 2012 and 2014 – was raised by disability campaigner Steve Aselford. Eight years after he made the first promise, Johnson last night said that he was looking at the business cases for both Sutton and Crystal Palace extensions, with Sutton being the better one so long as Sutton council allowed development along the line.O’Connell – who is standing for re-election as an Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton and therefore is in need of a transport offer to tempt the voters – said that he is “totally committed” to both proposals. But then who cares about O’Connell’s commitments? He has not delivered in the past eight years and he has no executive power to deliver the extensions anyway, even if he is returned to City Hall.
The only blow that Johnson landed on Croydon’s Labour council came when he extravagantly decried it as “useless, spadded, desiccated” for seeing recycling rates drop from 42 per cent to 40 per cent in its first year in office. The youngsters in the press seats turned to their Greek-English-Greek dictionaries for help, but no one could find out what BoJo meant by “spadded”.
Talking of rubbish, Johnson went all absent-minded and could not recall that in 2013, he had approved the building of the Viridor incinerator at Beddington Lane. Air quality in London, he claimed apparently in all seriousness, is improving…
By contrast to the muted response to local issues, by far the biggest positive reactions from the audience came when a member of the public accused the Mayor of adopting his anti-EU stance for “political self-interest”, and later when Boris sparred with the Labour leader on the Assembly, Len Duvall.
Labour AM Joanne McCartney did better than her colleagues, having come well researched to talk of 46 police officer cuts and 141 PCSO cuts in Croydon since Johnson became Mayor, a period which, of course, includes the 2011 rioting. She also highlighted a 16 per cent increase in Croydon violent crime in the period of Johnson’s Mayoralty.At least the event gave O’Connell the opportunity to keep reminding the audience a little clumsily of his name – a useful opportunity ahead of election time, provided the 400-or-so people in the audience don’t remember it and avoid putting their X on the ballot paper alongside the Tory’s name.
Audience members felt that he chaired the meeting well, fending off an openly party political question asking Johnson how good he thought Zac Goldsmith was, dealing patiently with eccentric off-beam audience questions and trying to fit in as many of his colleagues on the Assembly as he could, none of whom the audience had really come to hear.
O’Connell did, though, make one serious factual error when the 59-year-old claimed not to look old enough to have been able to vote in 1975, the last time Britain held a referendum on Europe. He sided then with the “outers”, so at least he has remained consistent in one respect: he announced to the audience last night that he favours Brexit.
From his position on the far left of the stage, the local councillor for Kenley ward struggled to see the audience to his left, such was the poor lighting in the stuffy hall.
It all seems very timely, both that the good burghers of Croydon are going to renew these tired old Halls and that we’ll soon see a new Mayor, replacing the jaded Johnson, who clearly got bored with being Mayor of London long ago.
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