Political editor WALTER CRONXITE watched the latest travesty of a council meeting, so you wouldn’t have to
Will they never learn?
Monday night saw the Town Hall chamber holding the last full meeting of the council before the local elections on May 3. It was the last set-piece public event of the Labour-run council which was elected in 2014. And it displayed all the self-importance, the hypocrisy and contempt for the public that might have been witnessed by a council of any political hue of the last half-century.
Tony Newman, the Blairite council leader, had won the 2014 local elections on a manifesto commitment to be the most open and transparent council in Croydon’s history. Yet Monday’s council meeting was an exercise in ignoring legitimate concerns and deliberately belittling the public, while more troublesome questions put to the leader and his clique of a cabinet were simply blocked.
Residents’ groups from across the borough had made no secret of their intention of protesting at the meeting over growing concerns about the council’s wholly owned housing developer, Brick by Brick. Many of them had tried to submit questions for the meeting. Some had even had their questions accepted.
But those who dared to voice their anger at the way their borough is being bulldozed, largely to flog off public property for private profits, were ignored, shut down and even threatened with having the police called.
At least seven members of the public were forced to leave the public gallery during the meeting, denied a voice to the council that they elect.
The protestors had gathered outside earlier. The Brick by Brick Action Group is a mixed bag, including UKIP election candidates past and present, then there was the racist Islamophobe Clive Locke, while another group present were members of South Norwood’s anarchist cell. There were also Labour supporters and the politically unaligned, ordinary residents who simply don’t want to see their neighbourhoods diminished to make way for homes for private sale.
It was noticeable, indeed, quite how many attending the protest were well aware of how Brick by Brick is failing to meet its own targets for non-affordable “affordable” housing, and were calling for Croydon Council to start building council housing.
As was entirely predictable, the local Tories seized on this discontent, Tim Pollard, the Conservative opposition leader, opportunistically getting himself video’d outside the Town Hall, using the protest as his backdrop for political capital. You can hardly blame him: Newman and his deputy, Alison Butler, together with her husband, the widely despised enforcer, planning chair Paul Scott, have presented the Tories with an open goal going into the local elections.
It probably won’t alter the election outcome – if London polling is to be relied upon – but it may dent Labour’s hopes in a couple of marginal wards.
What seems different about this nascent campaign is how well-informed the protesters are. And it is not only the third-rate politicians who have earned their ire. Council chief exec Jo Negrini, the borough’s senior public official, is fast becoming a recognised for her reign of chaos.
The self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner”, fresh from her latest junket to the South of France at considerable public expense, was sent scurrying soon after she arrived at the Town Hall steps before the meeting. Apparently, she appeared horrified to discover that the people who pay her wages expect her to be accountable.
According to Elezebeth Brooks, one of the BxB Action Group organisers, “Jo Negrini came out to the protest because she heard her name called out.
“Actually, it was me shouting ‘Get Negrini Out!’
“Unfortunately for her, she introduced herself to me. I asked her about the building on children’s play areas and why the council thought it was right to do that. She told me it was perfectly ok to take away children’s play areas to build housing on.
“To say I was shocked at that callous answer is an understatement.”
Negrini, apparently, was later heard to complain that the protestors were “impolite”.
Another of the campaigners told Inside Croydon, “I shouted over, ‘Oi, Jo! How was Cannes?’
“She stepped towards me, ready for a row by the furious look on her face.
“’Enjoy pissing our £17,000 up the wall, did you?’ I continued, at which she turned and walked away sharpish. That was it. She didn’t stick around – I presume she entered the Town Hall by a back entrance.
“At that point many of the crowd came to me wanting to talk about their concerns about Brick by Brick and find out more about what she’d been up to at MIPIM. I’d brought a few posters along which were all claimed in a matter of minutes.”
Turning round and walking away from legitimate questioning appears to be Negrini’s stock in-trade. Inside the Town Hall, at the meeting itself, much was done to avoid accountability.
For a start, Negrini and Newman were able to hide behind their own carefully orchestrated meeting agenda.
And The Constitution. With Negrini sitting to the right of Mayor Toni Letts (it’s the mayor who chairs these meetings), The Constitution was invoked as the blanket defence to avoid answering anything too impertinent, anything potentially revealing.
And for more than an hour, the council revealed what they are really interested in: themselves.
The public were treated to a display of mutual fawning and back-slapping the likes of which Croydon Council, in full Trumptonesque mode, seems to specialise.
People in the packed public gallery, keen to get on with the real business of the meeting, were forced to cool their heels as first Newman, and then Pollard, went through carefully prepared speeches paying tribute to the various councillors who had chosen to retire, or had been de-selected.
Most of the speeches were dire – councillors Dudley Mead and Timothy Godfrey being noteworthy exceptions – and the lame “jokes” even worse. Some in the public gallery, bored witless by the self-congratulatory bullshit, walked out.
In doing so, they missed a couple of highlights, such as Pollard comparing Mike “WadGate” Fisher, his predecessor as Croydon Tory leader, to a pub landlord on a comedy series. What could he have been implying?
Pollard’s fulsome (correct definition) tribute to one-term Tory James Thompson was also irony-heavy. He described Thompson as some sort of expert in social media, yet it was his holiday selfies which caught him out, as Thompson claimed his £11,000 a year allowances but rarely bothered to turn up for council business.
And then there was the outburst from veteran Purley councillor Donald Speakman.
Speakman was railing at his deselection as a candidate by the Conservatives. Speakman was not one of those chosen few who were afforded the opportunity of doing a final turn in the chamber (Pollard must have guessed that he would not go quietly), but somehow the long-time councillor got his mike turned on and got on to his feet before Letts or Negrini could gag him.
“I’ve been dropped for living too long,” Speakman said.
“It’s ageism, and I do not accept it.” His anger was palpable.
Chris Wright is another ancient Tory who will stand down from the council come May. Unlike Speakman, he was allowed a platform to speak, and he engaged with the people he is supposed to serve, rather than indulge in navel-gazing like the others delivering their self-obsessed valedictories.
Referring to the councillors as being “custodians” of the borough for future generations, Wright could have been accused of playing to the gallery when he said, “We should listen to the residents.” There were loud cheers and clapping.
Proceedings paused for a good minute, until the applause subsided. Letts did not look best pleased.
There was then another pause, as councillors wandered around the chamber at their leisure to collect some sort of certificate (for the one-width backstroke, perhaps?), and pose awkwardly while one of their number took a happysnap on their smartphone.
Egos sufficiently massaged, the Mayor eventually called the meeting to order, and turned to the matter of most interest: public questions. Here was council business at its Orwellian worst.
From the gallery, Norman Young asked if the council could explain how, on its website, their wholly owned building company Brick by Brick could claim to be “multi-award-winning”.
Butler was sent in to bat this one away. She edged a dolly to slip when she detailed the “awards” which Brick by Brick had won, citing obscure architects’ clubs and development websites, “… and there have been some commended and second places. Three awards: that’s multi-award-winning, I think.” Butler had enjoyed the fruits of such awards, having tripped along to the Hurlingham for one expensive architects’ piss-up.
There was a strong smell of bullshit in the air. Local resident Young was clearly unimpressed. He pointed out that Brick by Brick had yet to build a single house. “Most awards are given after the building has been completed,” he said, risking stating the bleedin’ obvious.
Not that any of it appeared to matter to Butler, who together with her husband Scott, take refuge behind the housing crisis and the word “affordable” when talking about homes that are being developed using public property and the majority of which are going to be flogged off as private sales.
Mead, after 38 years as a Croydon councillor, is a sly old fox when it comes to stirring up the public, and in his valedictory speech he had, quite deliberately, managed to mention that when he handed over control of the council’s housing revenue account in 2014, there was £6million sitting ready to be used for building… well, council houses.
One resident, Sharon Swaby, from Shrublands, who had managed to get permission to ask a question of the council which is supposed to represent her, was called to recite the written text she had submitted. She opted to raise the matter of “… the £6million which was ring-fenced to build social housing. Why has none been built?”
“That’s not a supplementary question,” the Mayor snapped.
There were shouts and loud comments of dissent, demanding an answer to the question. But that might be something like accountability. From the Mayoral chair, Letts asked if the shouter wanted to leave.
“No!” came back the shouted response, heard across the chamber, “You go!”
At which, Letts ordered the protestor’s removal, “or I shall have to call the police.”
When the council’s own heavies arrived in the public gallery – turning up far faster than Veolia ever do to remove a fly-tip – they started to remove the wrong person. At which point the dissenter volunteered themself, and left accompanied by three colleagues in a display of old-school solidarity that will have been novel to the Blairite councillors sitting below them.
When other members of the public sought to deviate from the strictly controlled agenda, they too were closed down by the Mayor, who was looking increasingly agitated.
When Butler addressed a question about why planning applications for Brick by Brick never get rejected, she claimed that some planning applications (though none from the council’s house-builder) do get rejected. “Any decisions are only made on planning issues,” Butler said, delving further into Orwellian Ministry of Truth territory.
The Mayor, having been so strict about observing the rules and agenda, then abruptly cut-off public questions, short of the meagre half-hour allotted. The retiring councillor speeches had been allocated twice as much time, such is the contempt that the Town Hall machine has for accountability and the public.
There were some further questions, these posed by opposition councillors, in which some public interest was smuggled into the chamber.
More than once, Butler was forced to recite her mantra of Croydon’s green spaces being safe in her hands. Yet at another point, she explained how the green space at the corner of Edridge Road wasn’t deemed significant enough to protect from being built upon by Brick by Brick. This from the cabinet member who has handed over a slab of Queen’s Gardens to a private builder for development, and from a council that, at the stroke of a pen when it suited them, took away Green Belt status from playing fields at Coombe Woods.
And Croydon’s third-rate politicians wonder why no one believes what they say.
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