WALTER CRONXITE reports on one version of the borough’s political map which may not deliver all that council leader Tony Newman imagined
If council leader Tony Newman’s intention was to gerrymander a new set of council wards to secure Croydon as a Labour local authority at borough elections for years to come, then he may have blown his – and his party’s – chances for a generation.
Indeed, the re-drawn boundaries for 27 wards and 70 councillors to be submitted by the council to the Local Government Boundary Commissioners look to have left the door wide open for the Tories to win back control of the Town Hall in 2018.
The set of recommendations, ostensibly from the non-partisan Croydon Council but in reality with the strong backing of the Labour council leader, is – in councilspeak – “to be reviewed by a committee meeting at the Town Hall tonight”. In normal English, that means rubber-stamped by a handful of Newman appointees, with the recommendations to be submitted to the Boundary Commissioners by the deadline of December 5.
There are expected to be other submissions to the Commission – from Croydon Tories, from Labour, and from the Progress-dominated Croydon South Labour group – but the council submission is likely to have had the greatest amount of time and research devoted to it.
The whole process is already two months behind schedule, after Croydon Conservatives sought some vague political advantage by submitting a suggestions that the council should reduce the number of councillors serving the borough by 10. The Commissioners rejected this, and told the political parties to go back and start again.
And when we say “the parties”, we actually mean just two political parties – the Tory and Labour duopoly which has controlled Croydon Town Hall unopposed for almost half a century.
The Greens, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and others have – so far at least – barely shown any interest in this latest round of reviews of the borough’s electoral geography. What is supposed to be a non-partisan process has been rendered deeply party political. The Commissioners, for all their independence from party politics, will be left to sift through the suggestions effectively from just two vested interests.
The reason for the review is to even-out and re-balance the number of elected representatives for the borough’s rapidly growing population. With new housing developments as well as new voters coming into the north and the centre of the borough particularly, we should expect considerable changes in the way the electoral map is divided.
An astute council leader, with the resources of the council staff at his disposal, might have tried to ensure that its submission to the Commissioners was so well crafted, with all guidelines followed carefully and strong arguments offered for every proposed boundary change, that the plan just had to be accepted.
But that’s not the case with Croydon Council’s submission, which is often clumsily partisan, and provides little explanation for the reasons for its proposed changes.
Given the 70 ward seats to play with, and ruling out having any wards with just a single councillor, the council recommends increasing the number of wards from the current 24 (where all but two wards have three councillors) to 27 wards (where 11 wards will have just two councillors).
By our calculations, under these proposed new boundaries there are 29 safe Labour council seats and 28 safe Tory seats, with 13 marginal seats where the battle for control of the Town Hall could be decided. In 2014, the last local elections pivoted on the outcome of nine council seats in three wards, in Addiscombe (held by Labour), Ashburton and Waddon (both lost by the Conservatives).
Some of the changes proposed are cosmetic – Fieldway becoming “New Addington North”, for example. But with a single exception, none of the 24 current wards would be left unchanged were these recommendations to be applied.
There are some good proposals in the council document. The Town Centre ward, for example, and the creation of a South Croydon ward for an area which in the past has suffered because – being split between three sets of ward councillors and two political parties – the concerns of businesses and residents there have too often been overlooked.
It is also a sensible proposal to include Sylvan Hill in Upper Norwood, rather than South Norwood.
But there are some unexplained changes which, frankly, make little sense under the criteria given by the Commission to consider.
Splitting Thornton Heath at the High Street looks odd.
Waddon ward, currently, is unique in England, surely, for having a large private school and a Hilton Hotel, yet returning Labour councillors. Under the proposals, a swathe of Pampisford Road is re-allocated, and an area of Old Town is tacked on to the ward despite being the other side of a five-lane urban motorway, which would normally be considered a fairly obvious ward dividing line.
There are other examples of such blatantly partisan changes for political advantage, such as recreating Monks Orchard ward to hive off Tory voters from Labour-held Ashburton.
The council’s cartographers have also made some Conservative wards too large – something the Commissioners are likely to spot immediately.
One impact of the ward changes, especially with the new two-seat wards, will be a chicken run by Tory councillors in six months time as they scramble to find new, safe seats from which to collect their allowances.
One of the current three Coulsdon East councillors – James Thompson, Chris Wright and Margaret Bird – will be left seat-less in a re-configured, two-seat Old Coulsdon ward.
Selsdon and Ballards, too, and Heathfield will become two-seat wards, though with Dudley and Margaret Mead likely to retire from the council at the next election, there might not be such a fuss over who stands for the Tories in those wards at the next election.
That would not be the case where there are currently nine Tory councillors with just six seats for them in the proposed new Coombe, Croham Hurst and Sanderstead and Riddlesdown wards: Vidhi Mohan, Helen Pollard and Sue Winborn, Maria Gatland, Michael Neal and Jason Perry, and Lynn Hale, Tim Pollard and Yvette Hopley will all be looking to grab a seat when the music stops in this Town Hall version of musical chairs.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Commissioners will take on board these recommendations at all when they publish their own draft in February. Indeed, the council’s report offers no justification on the detail of its ward boundary recommendations – which of itself is odd and hardly designed to endear the plan with the Commissioners.
The Commission’s final map is due to be inked in June – and that will sound the starter’s gun for a stampede by Labour and Tory politicians for selections ahead of 2018’s local elections.
The election result in 2014 based on these new boundaries would probably have been 42-28 to Labour, but while the new Town Centre ward (with two seats) might have been won by Labour then and could still be red in 2018, with the gentrification of the area and massive development of Yuppie flats, that ward looks set to become a Tory stronghold in the near-future.
That, and the strong possibility that the six seats in the proposed two re-designed Addiscombe wards could be won the Tories, and were a council-wide election to be held this week on these boundaries, the chances are that the Conservatives could take the Town Hall by 38 seats to 32, and all thanks to the handiwork of Labour leader Newman.
In the end, the Commissioners will make up their own minds over the re-drawing of the map. So this all amounts to an opening gambit by Labour, though it will influence their thinking.
- Read the council’s submission to the Boundary Commissioners here
- Click here to visit the Local Government Boundary Commission website and submit your own comments
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