Croydon Council Tax-payers are subsidising the local Conservative and Labour parties to the tune of nearly £100,000 per year. No wonder the duopoly at the Town Hall don’t want to make any serious reductions to the number of councillors, reports WALTER CRONXITE
Croydon’s Tories have bottled it.
The opposition group on Croydon Council have tabled a motion for Monday’s Town Hall meeting which, if accepted – and it won’t be – might save the Council Tax-payers of the borough less than £500,000 over the full four-year term of a council.
Fair enough, half a million quid is half a mill, and not to be sneezed at. But in the overall scheme of things, within an organisation that is turning over £4 billion in the same period, the latest Tory wheeze is really quite timid.
Their bright idea is to reduce the number of elected councillors in the borough from 70 to … wait for it… 60!
“Timid Tim” Pollard, the Tories’ low-profile leader on the council, tries to claim this is a bold move.
It is far from it – and is in fact just the latest example of insincerity and blatant self-interest from our local politicians.
If we assume that the 10 councillors for the chop are all back benchers, and therefore on the minimum councillor’s allowance, then that will provide a cash saving of a mere £110,000 per year. That’s little more than half of “stunning” (according to Labour leader Tony Newman) council CEO Jo Negrini’s pay package.
The Tories could have been really bold and offered up some real reform. There are 24 wards in the borough at present (with a boundary review imminent): why haven’t the Tories suggested having just two councillors per ward, so 48 in total under current ward configuration, offering a notional saving on allowances of more than twice as much, at £240,000 per year?
Or, as part of their craven job creation scheme for Gavin Barwell ahead of 2020, they might have suggested a London Assembly-style Town Hall chamber, with an elected Mayor of Croydon and just 24 councillors, one for each ward, so saving the borough more than £2 million in councillors’ allowances over the four-year term.
It’s fairly obvious that since the council abandoned its system of committees, and brought in a 10-strong council cabinet and a “strong leader” instead, the roles of almost 60 of the borough’s councillors have been much diminished.
At council meetings, the two party leaders now choose who speaks in debates and who asks the first four questions of each cabinet member. Two years into this term, and there are back benchers from either side who are frustrated at their exclusion from debates, questioning whether they even need bother to attend full council meetings.
For woe betide any councillor who steps out of line under this system of patronage and so gets the wrong side of their group leader. Although watching football on the telly in the chamber during meetings goes unpunished if you’re a card-carrying member of Progress, apparently.
The Tory motion at Monday’s Town Hall meeting states: “This council backs proposals to the Local Government Boundary Commission to reduce the number of Croydon councillors to 60 (from the current 70). This reflects the significant reductions in the council’s workforce and demonstrates a recognition among local politicians that it is only right some of the cuts must fall on themselves.”
This cheese-paring proposal was part of Croydon Conservatives’ submission to the Electoral Commission review of the borough’s ward boundaries.
Tony Newman’s Labour group is opting to defend the indefensible, handing the Tories yet another political gift by arguing for the status quo of 70 councillors.
It makes little difference whether Croydon has 70 or 60 councillors.
The reality is that both groups of politicians are behaving with their usual degree of self-interest.
Why would turkeys vote for Christmas, especially if both the Conservatives and Labour parties use their councillor allowances for a secret political levy, amounting to nearly £100,000 per year of tax-payers’ money?
Both groups, as is common in most local authorities, expect all elected councillors to “donate” a proportion of their allowances to their party coffers, to pay towards campaign costs. When selected to stand for local elections, candidates even have to sign agreements that they will make these payments. The percentage demanded varies, with Labour in Croydon seeking bigger contributions from their current cadre of 40 councillors than the Tories ask for from each of their 30 elected representatives.
Estimates suggest that nearly £400,000 of public money, originally paid as councillor allowances, is transferred to the coffers of the two local political parties over the course of a four-year term. It is one chunk of council cash that hasn’t suffered any cut-backs while the public’s services have been axed and council staff have been losing their jobs.
So the statement from Croydon Conservatives, which they posted online this week, drips with insincerity when they say that their proposal might “reduce the cost of government locally by reducing the number of councillors”. Their proposal is really just chipping around the edges, and avoids any significant reduction in the amount which they are skimming off for their party from councillor allowances.
They quote Dudley Mead, a councillor since 1980 who has been enjoying a nice little five-figure public-funded sinecure since his retirement. “In my 36 years as a councillor, the biggest single change in my workload came about with the introduction of the cabinet system in 2000. Councillors became, at the stroke of a pen, less operational.
“Many of the sub-committees and working parties which had kept members very engaged with the day-to-day operations of the council disappeared.” This is an important observation, because council sub-committees were where the council’s senior staff – directors and exec directors, those who these days are on salaries of £80,000 to £180,000 per year – would be questioned regularly by a panel of councillors, from both parties.
Now, Mead says, thanks to email, the Selsdon and Ballards councillor is able to do much of his work “from the comfort of my own desk”. Which must be nice for him. Odd that this was never mentioned when the Tories were in power and he and his wife, Margaret Mead, also a councillor, were between them receiving more than £80,000 a year as cabinet members until 2014.
The Tories claim to have done research on the councillors’ workloads between 1998 and today, though they have yet to publish the results of their surveys. So we just have to take their word for it.
“The time commitment required of councillors is down very significantly from 1999, the time at which the last boundary review took place and the committee system was in operation.”
Sounding just a tad complacent, the Tories claim, “Ward data demonstrates there is no evidence that the case loads are excessive or the councillors unduly taxed”, an admission which will surely come back to bite Conservative councillors in the arse.
Anecdotally, councillors in the more densely populated wards in the centre and the north of the borough suggest that their casework – dealing with enquiries from residents – has increased as a consequence of people being more readily able to submit requests by email, rather than the old-style system which demanded attending monthly ward surgeries in person or writing letters and using the post. There is also the suggestion that in areas of greater poverty and social deprivation, the demands for help from elected representatives is also greater.
The Boundary Commission’s task is to re-balance the size of the borough’s wards, which may see fewer wards in the less densely populated south of the borough, where the Conservatives have their greatest support. Coulsdon East, Sanderstead (Pollard’s own ward), and Dudley Mead’s Selsdon and Ballards have at least 10per cent fewer residents than the borough’s average ward size. That, surely, accounts for part of the reason some councillors are not “unduly taxed”, as Timid Tim puts it.
But elsewhere, such as in Broad Green in the north of the borough, the ward councillors there work on behalf more than 10 per cent more residents than an average-sized ward.
It is those sort of inequalities in ward size which the Boundary Commission is expected to address.
In that process, shedding fewer than 15 per cent of the Town Hall’s councillors, as the Conservatives suggest, is hardly transformational.
“We are elected to represent the people of Croydon, not to take part in a job creation scheme,” Pollard said, possibly while he had his fingers crossed behind his back.
“All the evidence shows a reduction in the number of council meetings and events which councillors are required at. We believe it is absolutely right that Croydon has the correct number of councillors to do the work required – and not one single councillor more.”
Which really suggests that Timid Tim and his mates should be calling for no more than 40 councillors for Croydon (subject to the final boundary lines drawn up by the commissioners). Or, better still, to make Negrini and other council officials subject to proper, more regular scrutiny by demanding a return to a committee system in which all our elected representatives are able to do a proper job on behalf of residents.
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