ELECTION COUNTDOWN: Four years ago, the Conservatives in Croydon demonstrated their contempt for the electorate by not even bothering with a manifesto. This time round, as political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports, what they have produced is simply not very credible
The Incredibles have come to Croydon, and they’re disguised as Conservative election candidates.
There’s a lot that’s incredible in the Croydon Conservatives’ local election manifesto – there’s Councillor Pollard’s personal message, there’s the slogan and there’s the financial promises. All are beyond belief. Literally incredible.
Tim Pollard, the Croydon Conservatives leader, accuses Labour of dishonesty. Pot and kettle, anyone?
As he leads the Croydon Tories into a borough-wide election for the first time, Pollard fronts up their manifesto with his own personal message that calls for “more honesty back in our politics”.
Not complete honesty, note. Just more. He doesn’t specify how much more…
You’d think that any politician would not want to qualify the amount of honesty needed. Perhaps Pollard realises that some dishonesty might still be required at times.
It might be four years on, but 2018 is surely too soon after the 2014 election for a really credible Tory call for honesty, even when heavily qualified. This plea for “more honesty” comes from a senior figure in the last local Tory administration, an administration dishonest enough to break its promise not to allow an incinerator to be built near Croydon, and to try to hide the #WadGate secret payment to previous Tory leader, Mike Fisher. And it was the same administration that refused to open up the contracts on that incinerator and the £145million building of Fisher’s Folly, even to elected councillors.
Does Pollard really think that the people of Croydon have such short memories? Come on Tim, an honest answer…
Yes, Labour’s Tony Newman has broken his pre-2014 promises to “blow open” the books on Fisher’s Folly, the Tory-built luxury council offices, and there’s little affordable in Croydon Labour’s “affordable” housing.
But Blairite Newman won’t take any lectures on honesty from the Croydon Tories.
The Tories’ manifesto slogan is not credible either. “For a council that’s on YOUR side” is the headline of a manifesto obsessed with development pressures in the deep south of the borough. It’s as if the manifesto had been written to confirm that it is Labour, and not the Tories, that are for the many, not the few.
Pollard promises “fun” for Croydon – hardly credible from someone so reliably dull. Zip wires are promised, along with “everything the family needs for a fantastic day out”.
The Croydon Tories claim relevance by saying their candidates’ team reflects the town’s demographic make-up. They also say that they vehemently oppose discrimination. Both claims could do with a little more honesty.
They say that they “will strongly oppose anti-Semitism and any other discrimination against anyone because of their religion”. This kind consideration does not apply to gypsies. The top four Tory criticisms of the Croydon Plan includes that it “puts a gypsy and traveller site in Purley”.
Croydon Tories’ record of an apparent easy tolerance of blatant racism within their own ranks is not a great one, though the Tories do have some BAME – black and minority ethnic – election candidates this time round. Problem is, though, that in the 28 seats the Tories would have held in 2014 under the altered ward boundaries this election is being contested on, only five of those 28 Tory candidates could have a claim to be considered a BAME councillor. That hardly reflects the borough’s diversity.
As in the past, BAME Tory candidates are mainly running in seats Labour will likely win, most very easily. That’s not “more honesty back in our politics”. That’s a manipulative lip-service to the matter, while doing nothing to really try to be more representative.
Council Tax increases are limited and set by government so it will have to be other things that the Tories will cut to pay for those promises. Those cuts are not identified, which is not very honest.
There will be a voluntary extra payment suggested to people living in the 630 households in Band H properties. Are they going to give £133,000 each to cover the extra spending? It’s either incredible or just a joke suggestion by the local Tories.
As one veteran Town Hall figure said after seeing the Tory manifesto full of dishonest promises, “It’s the kind of election manifesto you only write if you think you’ve got no chance of winning the election.”
The honest realities are that, continuing reductions in grants from the Conservative Government, means that whoever has control of Croydon Town Hall after the elections on May 3 will be cutting spending, not increasing it.
Financial credibility is important for the local Tories after the Fisher’s Folly debacle, with the building’s malfunctioning £279.62 taps. A truly honest assessment would suggest that financial credibility is something the Tories won’t be able to claim for a while yet.
It’s fair to say, though, that the Conservatives’ manifesto for the local elections is an improvement on their 2014 effort.
Because last time there was no Tory manifesto at all.
So far, this time round, there has been no Labour manifesto, though Newman has said on social media that there is a fully costed manifesto due out tomorrow, as he bids to increase his party’s grip on control of the council, likely to take 48 of the 70 seats on the council.
Pollard has mocked Labour’s delay in putting together both a full set of council candidates and a manifesto, saying that it reflects a level of incompetence that typifies the council’s overall poor management under Newman.
“Virtually all decisions are made by a small group from the controlling party,” the Tory manifesto says, with Pollard clearly feeling removed from the democratic process as much as residents and the majority of back-bench councillors, who have to endure patronising warnings that council staff do not have to be accountable for their performance, while some of the most senior officers are able to leave the council after undeclared financial arrangements.
The Conservatives also seem to feel that the abrasiveness of Paul Scott, Labour’s chair of the planning committee, is an election issue that will cost Newman at the ballot box. They talk of restoring “faith in the planning committee’s integrity”. But they then discount that very serious allegation by saying that’s all down to the “unpopular decisions” the committee has taken.
That’s either a very naive view or a less than honest view of planning. Planning decisions are not a popularity contest, nor a democratic process. Rather, it’s a process subject to legal challenge under planning law. So this again all comes back to Pollard’s standards of honesty.
Tories will have to make the same decisions in law, but their manifesto dishonestly misleads about the discretion councillors have on planning decisions. Get it wrong in law and the Council Tax-payer will be paying the appellants’ and the council’s legal costs of overturned decisions.
The Tories attack the relationship between Scott and his wife, Alison Butler, the council’s deputy leader responsible for the Brick by Brick planning applications that her husband considers on the planning committee. The Tories write in their manifesto their intention, “To prevent perception of conflicts of interest we will not allow related councillors to hold posts where one is instrumental in determining planning applications sponsored by the other (shockingly, this does actually happen at the moment).”
Odd, then, that the manifesto says that a Tory council would allow the possibility of the Labour group to have Scott as the deputy chair of the planning committee, something decried by a councillor as “naive to the point of stupidity”.
There’s weasel words, too, on planning applications from Brick by Brick, the council’s wholly owned house-building company. “Pending a full review, put an ‘emergency stop’ on the plans of the Labour council’s infamous housing company ‘Brick by Brick’. Schemes will only be allowed to progress where they are in the interests of existing and new residents.”
Any such “review” is likely only to delay the building of the housing, incurring extra costs for Council Tax-payers while families are diverted to expensive temporary housing. But after the Tory review, the likelihood is that the housing schemes will still get built.
The Tories say that they have been listening across the borough, but they seem to have been listening most of all to people who already vote for them. There is no sign of coalition building across Croydon that will bring Tory electoral success against the 4 per cent swing against the Conservatives in outer London, beyond what was already a very good 2014 result for the London Labour party.
Residents associations will be given a special status above ordinary residents and would have a special role in stopping applications getting approval. In-fill housing will be resisted. The council will support more residents opposed to planning applications. Pre-application discussions – where developers can carve up a satisfactory arrangement with the council’s planning department – will be banned except for those with really big schemes.
In reality, Croydon has to hit its housing targets and Pollard’s qualified commitment to honesty rears its head again here, as Tory councillors will have to pass plans for 30,000 new homes. The Tories oppose the Mayor’s proposed increase to 50,000 homes by 2036. But Labour oppose that, too. The manifesto concedes that these are Mayoral targets that have to be met when it describes the targets “as the number we have to construct”. Do the Tories think people are stupid?
The Tories say they are serious about housing and that they will “start” building council houses. But the reserves in Croydon’s housing revenue account are not big enough to build more than a modest 40 council homes or so a year, with that money reducing all the time after the Tory government cut council rents by 1 per cent.
Any money spent on new homes is money that will not be spent on council house repairs. Maybe all this explains the big qualification of the reference in the manifesto to “start” to build? Or perhaps Pollard and Croydon’s Tories are secretly hoping for Jeremy Corbyn to win a General Election, to kick Theresa May, Gavin Barwell and even their own Mario Creatura out of Downing Street, and allow councils to build council homes big time? C’mon, honest answer, Tim.
The Tories say they want to get on with building in Purley town centre. This display of “honesty” from a group who, with Philp, have done everything they can to delay the Purley tower scheme. Interesting that there has been no announcement by the Secretary of State on the Purley towers call-in, which was orchestrated by Philp, hinting that the proposal will be given clearance after the election.
The Tories’ lack of viable ideas is highlighted by their proposal for a 21st century version of the Poor House, as they suggest a “number of ‘temporary tenancy’ blocks for the homeless, with support to help them get back on their feet”, in a classic Victorian values kind of Conservatism that relies on victim-blaming.
Elsewhere, though, and their partial honesty neglects to state that Westfield are Conservative Party donors when they say that a Tory council will get “out of the way” of the shopping mall builders, who have cast a development blight over the borough since they were introduced to Croydon by Boris Johnson and Barwell six years ago.
In the Tory manifesto fantasy land, regardless of retail and restaurant sectors weakness, Westfield will be delivered pronto. Other private schemes will be magically funded and progressed regardless of good commercial terms being needed to be secured by developers and bankers alike. Incredible.
And Boxpark will get even more subsidy.
Surrey Street traders will be as much condescended to as under Labour’s departing Mark Watson, with traders being encouraged to become “diverse” and “modern”. It’s a small mercy they didn’t suggest “artesan”.
No library will be closed – a change in tone from the party which outsourced the public library service to the collapsed Carillion, with disastrous effects.
Vanity projects will be dropped – which is a Tory U-turn when you consider their £145million Fisher’s Folly. What the manifesto describes as “Labour cycle race” has already been dropped by the council, which could no longer afford to pay for Newman’s ego trip of presenting prizes to cyclists few Croydon residents watched, cared about or even knew.
Tories want to be nice to pedestrians but would like to remove 20mph signs. Traffic decisions will be de-politicised, but Watson’s legacy Addiscombe one-way system will be reviewed.
And the same Conservative group which managed to set-up a contract for verge cutting which lacked any effective contract sanctions say that verge-cutting will be improved. Honest, guv.
The police, who are not coping with budget cuts and knife crime, will be told to have “a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to anti-social behaviour and low-level crime”. How they are supposed to achieve that is not mentioned. Honestly.
Three interesting ideas are lending deposits for renting contracts, bursary schemes for university places to mark the 1918 centenary, and better support for smaller charities away from the dominant Croydon Voluntary Action monolith. These, though, are also uncosted promises.
Perhaps the greatest hint at despairing honesty is Pollard’s plaintive plea to voters to concentrate on the local issues, where he feels the poor performance of the Newman administration gives him a chance. “The election is not about the EU. It’s not about who runs the country. It’s not even about London. It’s about Croydon, our town,” Pollard writes.
The Tories accuse Labour of not listening locally, but the election itself is the key listening event every four years and the answer heard back may well not please the Tories. Croydon has changed, but Croydon Tories haven’t changed enough.
They are facing a Labour landslide seeing likely gains in Shirley North and South Croydon wards, where sitting Tory councillors Michael Neal, Maria Gatland, Jason Perry, Richard Chatterjee and Sue Bennett are at serious risk.
Come the day after the election, Pollard and Croydon’s Conservatives, potentially reduced to 22 councillors, face having to be honest with themselves for a change.
The council’s poor performance will be just one factor that will sway those who bother to vote, up against many other considerations, including Brexit, Corbyn, anti-Semitism, the NHS, the economy, Croydon prospering (relatively), crime, a protest vote against the government, their own finances, Russians, immigration, local councillors’ incumbency, what they read that morning in a Daily Mail headline, what their friends or the parties say on social media…
Let’s be honest about that.
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