Residents living near Croydon Arena and South Norwood Country Park have had two years of turmoil as the council has gone ahead with building a massive secondary school. When they’ve turned to their Woodside ward councillors for help, well… GLORIA HOPE takes up the story of a democratic deficit on Croydon Council
Our councillors in Woodside recently delivered a little booklet to all the properties in the ward which is suggested had taken them more than a year to compile. That’s probably because it was difficult to locate the Brothers Grimm to write this particular fairy story.
Woodside’s councillors are Tony Newman (the leader of the council, an ex-musician), Hamida Ali (who specialises in everything diverse, a former Croydon High pupil who is employed as a diversity officer for Equity), and Paul Scott (who chairs the council planning committee, works as an architect with TP Bennett, and who is married to Alison Butler, the deputy leader of the council who is supposed to be in charge of the council’s housing programme).
In their leaflet, a work of considerable fable and fantasy, it says that our three councillors are “Standing up for Woodside ward and South Norwood”. Is this really supposed to mean the same three Woodside councillors who don’t like to meet with residents on their own?
Usually, if the residents’ meeting involves discussing a contentious topic, the councillors always ensure that they come along mob-handed, backed up with council officials, builders or contractors, or even head teachers, seemingly in order that they can distract or defer any questions, and so that they don’t have to deal with residents concerns directly. Woodside residents are left frustrated and unable to get answers from the Labour councillors who many of them helped to get elected.
It seems that the councillors’ tactic is to disengage the electorate to such a degree that they will give up and let the unaccountable council get away with anything it chooses to do.
In the booklet, it talked of the building of an “urgently needed” secondary school. As councillors for Woodside, you’d think that Newman, Scott and Ali might realise that we already have three secondary schools within two miles of this development. There may well be “urgent need” for school places, but that need is elsewhere in the borough, and certainly not in Woodside.
This was a scheme originally proposed by the then Conservative-run council, dumping the large school on our doorsteps when the Tories didn’t see Woodside as a winnable ward and so didn’t much care for what we poor residents might think or want. Yet after they won the Town Hall elections, it was our Labour councillors who helped push through the Arena Academy, with the able assistance of Pip Hesketh, the Croydon Council’s education officer.
Hesketh promised that the new school would be run by “an excellent education provider”. Instead, we got Oasis.
Hesketh’s definition of “excellent” might vary from yours; it is certainly different from my idea of “excellent” when I took a look at the exam results of other Oasis schools within Croydon. Shirley Park’s GCSE results (the percentage of pupils passing five GCSEs at A*-C grade) came in at 20th out of 25 Croydon schools. Their A level results (percentage of pupils getting AAB with at least two facilitating subjects) came 17th out of 26 schools in Croydon.
It is the same “team” at Oasis Shirley Park, just a mile down the road, which has been handed the task of running Oasis Arena, our “urgently needed” new secondary.
Oasis was founded by the Rev Steve Chalke, who was educated in Croydon and was told he would never amount to anything…
But Chalke’s Christian missionary zeal is certainly amounting to a lot, and all being paid for by the tax-payer, because as well as the under-achieving Oasis schools’ running costs being funded by the Department for Education, the building of Shirley Park was paid for with a PPI contract which is costing Croydon Council hundreds of millions of pounds – so a double whammy.
Croydon’s educational results do not compare well with neighbouring Sutton. Even our Tory MP Gavin Barwell has chosen to send his own son to a Sutton school.
Here in Croydon, there are now 47 academised schools which used to be under the control of the local authority. The process of academisation, and of designing and building schools to be run by these private school operators, all done with vast sums of public money, is proving very profitable for some, though.
Take architect Paul Scott, for instance. His profile on the website of TP Bennett, the archiects’ firm based in the Borough where he has been a director for 16 years, says that “Paul now has a leading role in our health and education team”, and that he “was lead designer on the award-winning Heartlands High School in Haringey and designed the new West London Free School”.
That’ll be the controversial West London Free School started by Toby Young, the Conservative-supporting journalist who wrote How To Lose Friends and Alienate People. Somewhat naughtily, since councillors are never supposed to hawk their elected positions to potential commercial clients in their professional businesses, Councillor Scott’s profile on the TP Bennett website flaunts his potential influence over Croydon’s planning committee. “Paul,” it says, “is a councillor in the London Borough of Croydon where he takes a prominent role on the planning committee.”
We’re not aware of any obvious abuses by Scott of his position on the planning committee for clients of TP Bennett. But then, why have they bothered to mention it in such a manner?
Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more…
It took Scott and his fellow Woodside councillors many months to organise a meeting with the residents they are supposed to represent, but eventually, last December, we thought we had finally got an opportunity to speak to them. And at the meeting, we were lucky to be instructed by a senior staff member from Oasis Arena about what respect is, and how to speak respectfully. She had seemed confused when a resident was speaking in an impassioned way, so she spoke very, very slowly, and patronisingly, effectively telling off the resident.
The meeting, and the staff member’s tone and attitude, was a huge own goal. If the meeting was supposed to be a PR exercise, contrived by our councillors to get residents on-side, then it was an unmitigated failure.
At the meeting, we heard the story of one family in Thornton Heath who had a child, now 11, who last year applied for their secondary school. Oasis Arena was not included among their school choices at all, but that’s where they were allocated, and the pupil is making the journey, twice daily, between the north of the borough and Woodside. When the mother went to Croydon Council to appeal over the school allocation, she was told there is no point, as it will be ignored. We understand that she is far from unique in this respect.
Doubtless, this story will be repeated among hundreds of families in Croydon this year, too, as parents are denied the schools of their choice for their children, who are consigned to five or six years of relatively long journeys, many of them undertaken by car, adding to the congestion and pollution on Croydon’s roads.
Meanwhile, as the builders work day and night to get the school completed by the target date of August, all the residents of the surrounding streets have had to cope with the site being illuminated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It is comparable to living on an airport runway, where is no escape from the constant bright lights.
Thousands of HGV lorry movements to and from the site have already contributed to the damage and, in some places, the destruction of the ladder of residential roads, and their pavements. Throughout the winter, there has been constant mud on roads and walkways, which has impacted on the quality of all of the lives of Woodside residents adjacent to the school build.
Interestingly, this doesn’t occur at East Croydon, where the building contractors appear much more interested in minimising the impact their construction traffic and disruption is having on the area.
So what’s the difference? Well, at Oasis Arena, it is Croydon Council who are the contractors’ clients, and they don’t seem to give a fig for the consequences of this build on the area. They allow contraventions of traffic management plans to pass without any consequence. It really demonstrates the utter disrespect for the residents and electorate of Woodside.’
Here in Woodside, we now we have a huge pink blancmange of a building which is twice the height of any of the surrounding houses and is built closer to the surrounding homes than any other new school in the borough. It dominates the landscape from all surrounding roads and the South Norwood Country Park. It has ruined our environment.
Furthermore it uses Metropolitan Open Land – which is supposed to have all the protections of Green Belt in an urban environment – for a MUGA (a multi-use games area) and a car park. Except they have managed to design a car park which will provide fewer parking spaces than the Arena’s car park did previously.
But that’s an issue once the school build is finished. Because at present, there is no car parking provision at all for all but four of the school staff on the school site. Oasis Arena is expected to have 100 staff. That leaves the rest to park in the reduced Arena car park. The Arena itself has more than 30 sports days booked during the coming summer term.
So where is that traffic going to go?
Indeed, very little thought appears to have gone into how the users of the borough’s one publicly owned and run sports stadium will navigate the newly created entrance. Croydon Arena is where Croydon FC play their home games through the football season and where Croydon Harriers train and compete year-round, as well as being used by numerous other sports clubs and community groups, such as for the recent Sport Relief charity miles the other weekend.
In future, they will be confronted by a slab wall of grey and black bricks with a rhodium red roof. A new canvas for budding graffiti (though that might be the sort of thing which our councillors might encourage now, just to appear “edgy” and down with the yoof).
What seems extraordinary is that someone actually got paid for designing this. And they took the money.
To add insult to the injury which residents of the roads by the Arena have endured over the past couple of years, our councillors have now sanctioned a plan to make the streets from Portland Road to Albert Road one way.
Our petitions have been ignored. With one of our councillors being the council leader and another being the chair of the planning committee, Woodside residents have little chance to lobby their elected representatives to speak on our behalf and argue against council policy. It’s a democracy deficit. Goodness knows what we would do if Ali, who is regarded as a rising star of the Labour group, gets promoted to a position in Newman’s cabinet, not that she has been particularly vocal on our behalf since being parachuted into the safe Labour ward for the 2014 local elections.
The one-way road scheme, if actioned now, potentially could be responsible for the late completion of the build. Willmott Dixon, the contractor, needs the roads to be two-way to cope with extra-large vehicles. Any late completion would take them into September, and the start of the new school year.
But don’t worry residents, Scott has assured us that despite the fact that we currently have to drive around the surrounding roads at night in a hopeless search for a parking space, there will be no loss of parking spaces…
This is a grim fairy tale.
Woodside residents are already beginning to ask whether Mr and Mrs Scott wake up each morning and discuss which other parts of Croydon that, between them, they can ruin and blight.
Newman rules Croydon by patronage, so any of the 38 other Labour councillors who dares not to toe the line is left out in the cold, denied cosy jobs in the cabinet or on committees, with the additional council allowances that go with those positions.
After the farce that was the Shirley Oaks council meeting at the Town Hall earlier this year, where it emerged that planning officers had failed to check who actually owns the land that the council had earmarked in its local plan to develop for housing, Newman is apparently now reluctant to see any members of the public, making him appear even more remote and autocratic.
The quality of our current representatives is pitifully poor.
What we really need on our council, representing the views of the people of Croydon, are some independent-minded, intelligent members of the community, imbued with common sense and a proper social conscience, some experience of life outside the small political bubble that Tories and Labour inhabit, and who don’t depend on the gift of their group leader.
They should also stand up to the all-powerful and domineering executive council staff, few of whom actually live within the borough and therefore rarely have to endure the consequences of their ill-considered and often ham-fisted policies.
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