Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on how an effort to shore-up Town Hall power through boundary changes has left Croydon’s Labour leadership even more dependent on Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader many of them tried to oust
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England may yet face a challenge from Croydon Tories to open up the process to further public consultation – a third one – after radical changes from the Commission’s first draft recommendations in Addiscombe and Park Hill were revealed when they published their final report this morning.
The creation of a single member ward for Park Hill and the Whitgift estate has come entirely unexpectedly, prompting some more mischievous Town Hall observers to wonder out loud whether this has been drawn up specifically with one person in mind.
“You used to call him the MP for the Whitgift Foundation,” a source told Inside Croydon this morning. “Maybe if Gavin Barwell ever wants to make a comeback to the council, with this ward he could be ‘the councillor for the Whitgift’.”
Single-member wards are usually created in rural areas where lower population densities require dropping to just one councillor for the area because otherwise the ward would be just too large.
In the rest of Greater London there is only one other instance of a single-member ward, and that is Darwin ward in neighbouring Bromley. There, the ward comprises tracts of farms and golf course land all around Biggin Hill.
In other redrawings of ward maps by the Commission in Greater London for the 2018 local elections in Bexley, Southwark and Redbridge, no such one-member wards have been created. It will be interesting to see how the eccentric creation of a one-member ward near the centre of Croydon will be received by the two very active residents’ associations in the newly created ward. They may yet like the dedication of one ward just to their concerns, but relying on a single councillor is a bit of a risk and some residents may feel short-changed.
The Park Hill and Whitgift lone councillor appears to arise out of a dilemma the Commissioners appeared to create for themselves in their previous draft, which some described as “a Frankenstein’s monster” of a proposal around the area of Addiscombe, Ashburton and Shirley wards.
In their report today, the Commissioners state: “We are proposing alternative wards as part of our final recommendations to reflect the community evidence received from residents, local groups and councillors, alongside the Labour Group’s proposals. Our proposed wards are based on the proposals received, with a number of alterations to ensure that the wards provide a satisfactory level of electoral equality.”
Despite making threats to challenge the changes last week, the Conservatives may be well advised to accept the results of these boundary changes (click here for the Commissioners’ own map).
The redistricting was requested by Tony Newman and the Labour-controlled council, thinking it might gain some longer term election advantage.
Yet in the mid-term, the way the new boundaries have worked out is to the benefit of the Tories, with the changes worth a net gain to the Conservatives of two seats, likely over time and at the next but one Town Hall elections due in 2022.
With Labour scoring a commanding 55 per cent of the vote in Greater London at the General Election last month, Newman’s Labour group really ought to win the council elections next year regardless of where the ward boundaries are laid down.
But there will be times when Labour will not be so dominant in Greater London polling, and these new boundaries, which are likely be in place into the 2030s, have, on balance, moved Croydon’s Swing-o-Meter slightly towards the Conservatives.
Fairfield ward – what the Commissioners had wanted to rename “Central” – is much smaller in geograpical size than at present, and loses Park Hill and the Whitgift Estate while gaining the Tamworth Road area and residences on the other side of the West Croydon line in Clarendon Road. Given those changes, in 2018 those three council seats – previously Tory-held – will probably be Labour.
This is unlikely to be well-received by Croydon Tories: one of those Fairfield seats is held by Helen Pollard, the wife of the group leader, and another by Vidhi Mohan, a former Tory parliamentary candidate.
Helen Pollard had to be indulged in selection musical chairs four years ago, when she was unceremoniously de-selected from uber-safe Heathfield ward to make way for one of Barwell’s favoured candidates. Thus in the next few months, if she wants to stay on the council, Helen Pollard may put herself forward for the more winnable Park Hill and Whitgift ward candidacy.
But just in the same way that “demographic change” accounted in some major part for the Tories losing the Croydon Central parliamentary seat, so in this reconfigured Fairfield/Central ward, it is likely that any Labour win in 2018 may be just a temporary change.
With so very many “luxury executive apartments” being built (the population in the area will probably double in the next decade), there’s a strong chance that by 2022, the Conservatives might have a strong chance of winning back this ward thanks to votes from the incoming Yuppies.
Addiscombe ward, now renamed Addiscombe West, will be less safe for Labour with its gaining part of Park Hill north of Chepstow Road.
Some high-priced housing in the south-east of the ward has been passed next door, to the currently Labour-held Ashburton ward.
But there’s also a lot of executive commuter towers being built in the ward that may not be homes to natural Labour supporters.
Ashburton ward, to be renamed as Addiscombe East, has lost a staunch Conservative polling district in northern Shirley but it has also lost two strongly Labour-leaning social housing estates and most of a third one, too. Thus a ward which was a triumphant Labour gain in 2014 will remain firmly in play for both parties.
In any case, Labour loses one seat here straight away, as the ward is reduced to two members instead of three. With Labour’s equalities policies dictating that at least one candidate in a council ward should be a woman, that means Maddie Hensen would be assured of re-selection should she seek it, but her two current ward colleagues, Stephen Mann and Andrew Rendle, seem likely to face a contest between one another for the remaining slot in the ward.
That Croydon Tories managed in 2014 to lose a ward which includes an £18,000 per year independent school and a Hilton Hotel was one of the major surprises of Labour’s victory in those last council elections. It was attributed by some to the deeply unpleasant nature of one of a Thatcherite councillor for the area and her even less popular husband. Nothing has been heard or seen of the George-Hilleys in Waddon since.
Now, after some hard-work and assiduous lobbying of the Boundary Commission by Labour councillors, Waddon also looks as if it may have consolidated its position, as it is to shed Tory-leaning areas all along Pampisford Road and that part of Haling Park Road to the south of Whitgift School, although it does gain the executive housing in the large New South Quarter, so it may still swing to the Tories if their national standings improve.
The Boundary Commission’s changes move the ward northwards, up the Purley Way’s retail parks, into where Waddon actually appears on the map. The council has plans for more than 2,000 homes on the Purley Way which could well change the political complexion of this ward.
Tory-held Croham ward, to be renamed South Croydon, gains part of the Pampisford Road and all of the Haling Park Road area from Waddon, plus solid Conservative areas in the Croham valley. The ward – which has gained some notoriety for being represented for the Tories by Maria Gatland, a former IRA gun-runner – loses a staunch Conservative area to the south of Croham Hurst and gains Labour-inclined areas in the heart of South Croydon itself.
Labour is only ever likely to seriously challenge for this ward when it is riding high across the whole of London – as it is at present. But in less heady days, this ward is where the Tories have previously polled twice as many votes as Labour, so it seems unlikely that there will be a change here even after the boundaries are redrawn.
New Addington ward is renamed New Addington South. The geography of this two-member ward is otherwise scarcely changed. Labour will remain cautious in a ward where they lost one seat to the Tories in 2010.
Elsewhere there will be 29 safe Labour seats, as there are today, and there will be 25 safe Tory seats, down two on the current level. Meaning that control of the council will rest in the remaining 16 ward seats which could swing one way or another, depending on the public mood.
So Tim Pollard, the local Tory leader, should be pleased with what the Commission insists is their “finalised” offer.
But the new boundaries, with so many wards reconfigured from three councillors to two, present the two main political parties with some tricky situations to resolve in the next few months over candidates.
For instance: will Steve O’Connell, with his City Hall duties as a London Assembly Member and so many Crystal Palace matches to attend, stand down in Kenley in favour of his two colleagues as their ward is down-sized? There will, though, be spare places available next door in the newly created Purley Oaks and Riddlesdown ward that runs from Pampisford Road in a ridiculous configuration that is eight times longer than it is wide and could be mistaken for a rough representation of a hung pheasant.
There are difficulties for Labour teams, too, with the Mayor of Croydon, Toni Letts, a member of Newman’s cabinet until recently, Timothy Godfrey and David Wood now in a two-seat Selhurst ward. As in Ashburton/Addiscombe West, equalities policies in their party will see the two male councillors have to slug it out between one another.
The new boundaries should bring improved electoral equality, but they have not made the borough a safer Labour election prospect, as was council leader Tony Soprano’s intention when he called in the Commissioners. Newman’s error was probably in handing the job of drafting his group’s submission to his mate, Paul Scott, with a set of proposals most of which have been ignored by the Commission.
Unable to deliver on his pledge of 50 per cent affordable housing, even through the secretive and unaccountable Brick by Brick company, the Owen Smith-supporting Newman may find himself, again, reliant on the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn in order to hang on to power in Katharine Street next year.
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If Croydon remains a borough where MPs’ and councillors’ fortunes are vulnerable to swings, that’s good for democracy. One party safe seats and councils generate contempt and complacency, e.g. Grenfell
And by our calculations, after all the time and expense on this exercise to “improve” democracy, there will be 54/70 Town Hall seats which will remain steadfastly safe Labour or Tory.
If you want to see contempt and complacency, you don’t need to look as far as Kensington. Visit Fisher’s Folly. Take a look at Surrey Street, or Lion Green Lane, or Auckland Rise.
And as a footnote: no one has ever voted for the council’s chief executive or its senior directors.
No matter who you vote for, the council always gets in.
Apologies for being eight months late in replying, but there are two other single-member wards in London which are not mentioned in the article: Poplar ward and Limehouse ward, both of which are in Tower Hamlets.