WALTER CRONXITE reports on a gathering crisis over the maintenance of the borough’s parks
Some staff working for one of Croydon’s biggest external contractors are being paid less than the London Living Wage, according to an internal council Labour group memo.
In the memo, it alleges that idVerde, the company which took over parks and gardens contractors Quadron last year, has been laying off staff in Croydon and recruiting replacements at pay rates below the London Living Wage. It is possible that some of the staff being laid off may have been employed previously by Croydon Council, until the parks service was outsourced in 2014.
The news should be massively embarrassing for Labour’s council leader Tony Newman, just days before Croydon is to formally launch its “Good Employer” scheme.
Making Croydon a London Living Wage borough was a Labour manifesto commitment before the 2014 local elections which required all council staff and employees of the council’s contractors to be paid at least £9.75 per hour.
It was Newman who enthusiastically supported doling out a £3million loan of council funds to Boxpark, without first ensuring that they or the outlets in the food and booze venue are registered as Living Wage employers. Now, it appears that Newman’s council is unable to ensure that even the people maintaining the borough’s 120 parks and green spaces get paid a living wage.
A Croydon Labour source told Inside Croydon, “The contractors’ appalling behaviour was possible because the contractor included this in their original contract award – negotiated under the previous Conservative administration.
“This does not make it any easier to stomach, as no staff member should be treated this badly, regardless if they work for the council directly or in this case for one of our contractors.
Timothy Godfrey, Labour’s cabinet member responsible for the borough’s parks, told Inside Croydon that the council’s Living Wage requirement applies “… on all new contracts and on all staff directly employed, including all part-time and temp staff.
“The borough is committed, like the Mayor of London, to bring pressure on everyone to do so.”
Godfrey would not comment on the situation with parks contractor staff.
It was Tory councillor Phil “Two Permits” Thomas who signed off on the £16million, five-year deal with Quadron in 2014, just before the Conservatives lost control of the council.
Under the agreement, Croydon off-loaded 90 staff from its own pay-roll (or that of its grounds maintenance contractor). Thomas and the Tories, backed up by the then chief executive, Nathan Elvery, reckoned that the £3.2million annual spend on parks maintenance would shave 10per cent off the council’s park-keeping costs.
“This represents a great deal for local taxpayers and will mean that visitors to Croydon’s parks and open spaces will continue to enjoy excellent standards,” Thomas said at the time, a statement which as every Croydon park-user can attest, is demonstrably untrue.
The Quadron contract with Croydon has turned out to be a typically Tory deal, nothing more than a race to the bottom with the contractor low-balling their bid to ensure they got the council’s business at the lowest price. Only now are the consequences of that process beginning to unravel – as idVerde/Quadron showed last summer when grass-cutting appeared to be regarded as an optional extra.
“It’s become apparent that they over-spent in the first three years of the Croydon deal, to satisfy the demands of the contract,” one source close to the parks department told Inside Croydon. “But now the pot’s empty and they don’t have much left to complete the service.”
Inside Croydon understands that council officials have already put out feelers to other potential service providers to take on some aspects of the large and complex operation of maintaining the borough’s gardens and parks.
Any such move is likely to be welcomed by some councillors. The poor levels of service provided by idVerde/Quadron has seen Labour councillors, such as Jamie Audsley, who represents Bensham Manor ward, calling for them to be fired.
Parks services are seen to be especially vulnerable at present, as local authorities across the country hunt around for any savings they can make, as cuts to their central government grants see Tory austerity measures approaching an eighth year.
Catherine Shelley, the co-chair of the local Green Party, said, “Nearby Bexley council has started selling off green spaces to developers to save money and Surrey Council has announced plans to cut their funding to the Surrey Wildlife Trust, leading to redundancies.
“Croydon Council has made the welcome promise that they do not intend to reduce the number of green spaces in the borough but we still await the publication of their plans following the ‘Croydon Talks Parks’ consultation last year, to see how they intend to maintain our green spaces in future.
“This news raises very serious questions about how much money there is left in the contract for Quadron to continue providing the required level of service for the remaining period of the contract. We know that councils are under extreme financial pressure due to the national government cuts, and so there isn’t a huge pot of money available to boost funding for green spaces,” Shelley said.
Inside Croydon approached idVerde for comment, and a spokeswoman at their Weston-super-Mare offices said, “We are working within our business plan as per our agreement with Croydon Council and intend to continue doing so for the duration of the contract.” She was unable to confirm the number of redundancies that had been made to the company’s staff in Croydon.
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