KEN LEE, our Town Hall reporter, sat through nearly four hours of Monday’s Town Hall meeting, so that you didn’t have to…
A mere 90 days since the last full meeting of the council, and most of the borough’s councillors at last gathered again in the Town Hall chamber on Monday night.
Since the local elections in May, and over the long hot summer, no fewer than 13 public meetings of the council have been cancelled or postponed – at least one of them because it clashed with a football World Cup match on the telly.
Anyone might assume that there’s been little or no council business to conduct in the meantime.
Then there was the council’s over-the-odds multi-million pound purchase of a hotel; there’s been members of the Town Hall leadership failing to declare family involvement with a firm that benefits from juicy council contracts; poor progress with improvements to the failing children’s services department; the glacially slow movement on Westfield and its CPO; further contentious planning permissions; the forced closure of a large secondary school; more costly and embarrassing set-backs with the Fairfield Halls; and the borough rendered a national laughing stock over butt-pluggery and induced incontinence passed off as “art”, and all paid for on the rates.
And in the time since the last full council meeting was held in early July, Tony Newman and his Labour-run council has managed to pass through an increase in their own councillor allowances of up to 27 per cent.
After leaving so much council business in the hands of Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, the chief exec, and her band of highly paid local authority bureaucrats, you might think that there was plenty of scope for public questions on Monday.
But not in Croydon.
In what Newman once promised would be the most open and transparent council in the borough’s history, now public questions to cabinet members are more carefully censored than ever before.
In a format change introduced on Monday, questions from the public had been sifted and re-drafted by council officials, and instead of being put to the elected representatives by residents, they were read out, from a script that had been carefully prepared for her, by the Mayor, Bernadette Khan.
Duly forewarned of what was coming their way, the cabinet members each had their own responses to the public questions equally carefully prepared. It was an exercise in news management which would have made Alastair Campbell proud.
After 15 minutes of this travesty of local democracy, some residents in the public gallery were given their chance to ask the questions that they actually wanted to ask, in the manner that they wanted to ask them. But they were denied any opportunity for supplementary questions to the elected representatives. There was just not enough time, was the official excuse given. Conveniently. So no nasty surprises for councillors to have to respond to.
Croydon Council, under Negrini and with Newman’s acquiescence, knows what its priorities are, and public accountability ain’t one of them.
On display in the council chamber after the summer recess was a new screen and audio system for council officers to play with (at a cost to the public as yet unannounced), all in an attempt to broadcast that Croydon’s councillors are really important and, sort of, party politicians.
Croydon’s Tories had got a lot of residents to pose questions about #CroydonBinChaos. Too many questions, in fact. With more than 30 enquiries submitted by the public about rubbish contractor Veolia’s failing service, the Mayor summarised them into a handful of patsy points for which nattily attired Stuart Collins had all the (carefully prepared) answers.
Collins was disarming, polite and charming. So charming, in fact, that councillors, Tory and Labour alike, all chortled and thought it was a jolly good wheeze when he confided that his mother had been more harsh on him about her uncollected rubbish than Purley’s Conservative councillor, Simon Brew.
Labour’s Upper Norwood councillor Nina Degrads, one of the 2018 in-take, chastised the Conservatives for even daring to encourage the public to come to the council meeting to complain about Binmageddon. Presumably, there’s no overflowing, uncollected rubbish in Degrads’ ward…
By then, though, Collins already had the meeting eating out of his hand, as he presented figures and statistics which seemed to suggest that Croydon must have the cleanest streets this side of Shangri La.
The only slip made by Collins was when he revealed that the 250,000 new, smaller landfill bins which Inside Croydon had revealed had been bought by the council £2.3million, were in fact now costing £3million.
By censoring the public questions, the administration pulled many, if not all, of the teeth that the Tories had hoped to use to bite chunks out of Labour.
Newman will have seen the meeting as a clear win.
This was in spite of there being a succession of announcements which could not be seen as entirely good news for the Labour administration.
Cabinet member Stuart King took the party political initiative by putting the blame on others for what he described as the “unacceptable” decision to keep the Blackhorse Lane bridge closed to 2020.
Labour won hands down on housing, an ever more potent election issue in Croydon.
Part of Labour’s success has to be the half-arsed nature of their opposition across the chamber floor. Not thinking things through properly keeps exposing the local Tories to being outmanoeuvred on key subjects like housing.
Labour in Croydon has a piss-poor record since 2014 on delivering new homes in the borough, with not a single new council house in more than four years and Brick by Brick continuing failure to deliver or to meet its own social housing targets.
Yet Tory calls for Croydon council housing after Theresa Mayhem’s announcement of a relaxation of borrowing for council house-building were easily swatted away. Croydon Tories, who oppose almost all planning applications submitted to the authority, were urged by Newman to support new housing.
Newman’s appearance of moderation, calling for Right To Buy to be suspended, if only in those parts of the country with high house prices, showed Labour as being more grown up on the housing crisis.
Labour also looked relevant to many residents with its call for the government to introduce security of tenure for renters living in the private sector, instead of them being exposed to no-fault evictions.
It doesn’t help the opposition case when Croydon Tories’ leader, Tim Pollard, happens to be a private landlord.
Presumably speaking on behalf of his fellow landlords, Pollard expressed the fear that many would pull out of the market if they could not get their hands on their own property easily.
And so Croydon Conservatives walked into the trap set for them, and duly voted against providing extra protection for the borough’s many renters, most of whom have a vote.
Making his maiden council speech in the renters debate was Fairfield ward’s new councillor Niro Sirisena, who appeared to ignore the expensive new sound system and decided that he needed to shout his script. All very inappropriately macho, though in line with the Labour group, which allowed their male councillors to dominate questions from their side of the chamber.
In contrast to that shouty Labour red of tooth and claw, there was the juxtaposition of Waddon’s councillors looking pallidly non-party political. Were they doing that on purpose, to be awkward or different?
All three asked questions only about their home patch.
There were no other such local ward questions throughout the whole 215-minute meeting.
The Waddon three – Robert Canning, Joy Prince and Andrew Pelling – pleaded for protection against crime in Wandle Park, an update on the slow moving Fiveways project, and undertakings to develop 3g Purley Way football pitches sympathetically.
The Waddon councillors’ questions were about as close as the session got to having residents’ concerns properly aired in public with the senior councillors and cabinet members. It all seemed peculiarly out of place in a party political session that Labour clearly won.
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