WALTER CRONXITE, our political editor, on a rare outburst of straight talking among our Town Hall elected representatives
“Thank goodness someone finally had the courage to say it,” one very senior Labour councillor confided after Monday night’s full council meeting in the Town Hall chamber.
It was the first such scheduled meeting since June, and for most of the borough’s 70 elected councillors, a first chance to comment, question or scrutinise the development surrounding the crisis in the council’s children’s services department, as exposed by the “inadequate” findings of the Ofsted inspectors.
And for all the polite, parliamentary language that has been used to talk around the subject over the past month or so, it was Conservative councillor Donald Speakman who went right for the core of the issue. He accused senior council officials of lying.
“It was the best intervention he’s ever made,” the Katharine Street source said of Speakman’s performance, slightly damning with faint praise. Speakman’s only been a councillor in Croydon since 2002.
“The chief executive looked furious, as no one interrupted to ‘correct’ or apologise for his statement that officers had lied to councillors,” the Labour councillor said.
Speakman had begun his somewhat rambling question (he had to be interrupted by the Mayor to be told to get to the point) seeking clarification from Alisa Flemming, Labour’s cabinet member responsible for children’s services, about what exactly his duties, as a ward councillor, might be as a “corporate parent” for those Croydon children in the care of the council.
“May I first of all express some sympathy for your position,” Speakman said, addressing Flemming.
“It may seem odd. But I don’t regard social services, or children’s services, as part of the political mix. We are all committed to the best possible service for the clients.
“I suspect from your reported remarks that you feel very angry and very cheated about what has happened, because you have had senior officers lying to you.
“It is not unknown. They do this to protect their positions,” Speakman told the chamber.
“All experienced councillors will know that.”
When Flemming responded, she avoided contradicting the councillor for Purley ward. Was this because she agreed with him on the matter?
“You could see how uncomfortable that made Jo,” the Labour councillor said.
“She and her team had just been nailed for lying.”
Clearly, by missing the previous week’s “training workshop” helpfully arranged by Negrini for councillors, Speakman was entirely off-message as far as the chief exec is concerned. He had not been exposed to Negrini’s old flannel at the behind-closed-doors meeting about only “failing councils” sacking staff for their mismanagement and incompetence.
Certainly, other Labour cabinet members at Monday’s meeting were firmly on-message, readily providing what sounded very much like the scripts that had been provided for them by… the faultless, blameless and entirely truthful senior council officials.
Alison Butler was prominent in defending the indefensible, taking great affront when Tory councillor Maria Gatland suggested that council officers in the planning department had failed in their duties by not preventing rapacious property developers getting The View (previously, the Railway View) pub in Croham demolished, despite their lack of planning permission and repeated warnings to the council of the developers’ conduct from concerned local residents.
It was, Gatland said, “demolition by stealth”, and took place “under the noses of planning officers”.
“We can’t have an officer sitting outside every building that might get demolished,” Butler whined, condescendingly, as she defended the planning department, which failed to act for a whole week after demolition work started, with the result that the building no stands, gutted. It seems inevitable that the planning department will now be forced to grant planning permission, or have a derelict building beside a major road in South Croydon for years to come. The developers will have won, again.
Otherwise, after a generous four-month summer break, Monday’s resumption of tit-for-tat party politics in set-piece confrontations across the chamber floor provided little that was enlightening.
At the start of the meeting, 10 of the borough’s 70 councillors – five Tory, five Labour – were absent or had sent apologies for lateness.
It’s not like these meetings come along that often, after all: “If they had been benefit claimants on Universal Credit and not shown up, they will have been sanctioned,” another Town Hall source said. But then, Universal Credit claimants are rarely on £40,000 per year in Council Tax-funded allowances…
Among the absentees was the Tory group leader, Tim Pollard. It’s fair to say that no one at the Town Hall noticed.
Pollard, apparently, was ill, though not so ill as to have been unable to tweet throughout the meeting, bigging up the cadet Conservative councillor candidates who monopolised the public question time section of the meeting. It may have been a useful training exercise for the wannabe councillors, but most of the questions were too callow and look-at-me point-scoring to do what they are supposed to do: provide help or information to residents.
Phil Thomas, the de-selected senior Tory, was back, redder in the face than ever, and as usual talking a load of old rubbish. For Labour, Stuart Collins smiled disarmingly and, thanks to some helpful prompt questions from a party colleague, rattled off some statistics which showed that the council was bringing many more prosecutions against fly-tippers than when Thomas had been in charge of the state of our streets.
Patsy Cummings – or “Pasty Cummings” as the paperwork produced by Croydon’s professional council staff described her – made a sound maiden speech following her by-election win in South Norwood. Fresh from her experience of working in Jeremy Corbyn’s office, she did a bit for a “kinder, gentler politics” by calling upon her Tory namesake (“… a brother by another mother. And father”), Jason Cummings, to join with her in pledging a more grown-up politics. She then crossed the floor, and shook the hand of the Tories’ deputy leader.
Nice sentiment, but it didn’t last long.
The meeting had come to the tit-for-tat motions bit. Labour had put together something which seemed deliberately designed to force the Conservatives to oppose it, for in calling for an immediate halt in the roll-out of Universal Credit, Tony Newman’s crack top team included the words “cruelty and hardship caused by this Government”.
“As it happens, most of us think that Universal Credit has been disastrously handled and that there needs to be a re-think,” one Tory councillor admitted over a coffee in the Mayor’s Parlour, “but by including just those two or three words, there was no way we could vote for the motion.”
The Tories (ab)used the opportunity to grandstand what they claim will be a 2018 local elections manifesto pledge (yes, they’re going to have one this time).
They say that they’ll be offering a Council Tax amnesty for registered carers. It seems a sound, social welfare policy. Uncosted, of course, but surely the sort of thing, in this world of kinder, gentler, politics which Tony Newman’s Labour group could support?
Well, not quite.
Rather than support a good idea, Newman and his “head boy”, Labour’s chief whip Oliver Lewis, got the majority group on the council to abstain. From beside the Mayor, Negrini could be heard muttering something about taking the names of all the abstainers. This is not something the chief executive ever bothers to do for those voting for or against motions.
Remember, in 2017, Croydon Council still conducts its democratic business by 70 adults shouting “Yes”, or “No”, and no one bothering to count the votes.
So when Mayor Toni Letts called for a vote of those against the Tory motion, there was silence.
Prompted attentively by Negrini, Letts announced, “That will be recorded.”
The Conservatives’ motion had passed. The Council Tax rebate for carers is now, effectively, the policy of a Labour-run council, even though the Labour group refused to support it.
But there was at least one councillor who did not quite understand.
Mario Creatura (for it was he) got up for what he called a point of order. He was asking the Mayor to explain to him the result.
What followed was a scene reminiscent of all those Captain Mainwaring-Private Pike scenes from Dad’s Army which invariably finished with Arthur Lowe muttering, “Stupid boy”.
On Monday night, Jason Cummings, from the row of seats in front of Creatura, could be heard saying, sternly, “Mario. Mario. Sit. Down.”
And the beer salesman, stunned into silence, did as he was told.
A kinder, gentler politics indeed.
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