Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on grumbling discontent among Labour’s grassroots members over their council leadership’s bungling, incompetence and lack of reliability
Ollie Lewis, Croydon Labour’s cabinet member for butt plugs and shit shows, is to face a grilling from constituency party members tonight over his mishandling of a controversial report on the future of the borough’s libraries.
Last year, Lewis commissioned a consultants’ report which recommended closing up to four of the borough’s libraries. After keeping the controversial report under wraps for nine months, and after adopting estate agent vocabulary to tell a public session of the Town Hall scrutiny committee that he is “absolutely looking at how we can get the best value from our libraries portfolio”, Lewis has been forced to spend the past month back-pedalling faster than Lance Armstrong on EPO over the report’s recommendations.
The libraries report, compiled by consultancy Red Quadrant at a cost to the Council Tax-payer of up to £50,000, has prompted the usual data-scraping petitions from the borough’s Tory MP and wannabe-MP, Chris Philp and Mario Creatura. And because it includes a recommendation to “re-locate” Shirley Library, even Labour MP Sarah Jones has been forced to run a social media questionnaire to demonstrate her opposition to the politically toxic plans.
It seems that “Caddie” Lewis, a sometime golfing partner of Tony Newman, the council leader, forgot to share his library report with his party colleague, Jones. Fore!
Tonight, Labour members in Croydon South CLP are expected to grill Lewis over the report and the council’s real plans for libraries. They will want to know why a Labour administration managed to come up with a politically damaging set of recommendations that go far further than what Croydon Tories managed to come up with when they were in power.
Croydon South CLP is home to some of the sternest critics of Labour’s Town Hall leadership. Three of the libraries ear-marked for re-location, potentially for their sites to be handed over to Brick by Brick to build housing on them, are in Croydon South: Bradmore Green, Purley and Sanderstead.
Lewis (who’s able to meet his green fees from his annual council allowances of £45,168), though, is not alone among the Town Hall’s front bench Labour councillors for demonstrating an ability to send political golf balls crashing into OB – out of bounds.
Serial examples of crass incompetence and a less than straightforward attitude to residents are casting a pall over £55,546 per year Newman’s second term in Katharine Street.
Worries are growing in the local Labour party about unforced errors on issues such as the growing threat of losing protected green spaces, the near-tripling of fees for residents’ parking permits, and ill-defined charts for shoehorning in another 500 Brick by Brick housing units on garage sites, open spaces and children’s playgrounds.
All of these have served up political advantage to the local Tories on a plate.
The council report on the next round of council sites to be flogged off to Brick by Brick was either incompetently drafted or deliberately contemptuous of the public the council is supposed to serve. It was delivered with a volume of surveyors’ charts which were untitled, with no road names or any indication to show where the sites are located. Nor were most of the sites properly defined, beyond a vague asterisk plonked in a general area.
The report has caused panic among worried residents in neighbourhoods across the borough, including in normally strong Labour areas, as they fear that it will be their playground or back garden that is about to be concreted over.
Despite the open hostility to many of the existing land-grab schemes being managed by Brick by Brick around the borough, the Labour council is ploughing on with projects which eat up areas of green space, garage sites and children’s playgrounds, handing them over to the less-than-accountable in-house house-builder.
The significant difference with this batch of sites is that the council is already admitting that it will struggle to deliver even 40 per cent of the housing units as “affordable”. The council target for the first 1,000 new homes was that at least 500 would be “affordable”.
After four years, with works on all sites delayed, that affordable housing target is not being met. And Croydon’s Labour council will fail to build a single council house in the eight years since reclaiming Town Hall control in 2014.
Undaunted, the council’s planning department, backed by Paul Scott, the de facto chair of the Town Hall planning committee, has launched a review of their Local Plan to find ways of squeezing in another 46,000 new homes into the borough.
Although the ink is barely dry on the previous version of the Local Plan, the council is holding a snap consultation, until July 22, and asking residents to do their work for them by making a case on whether numerous green spaces in Croydon deserve protection from development.
“This all because Scott and head of planning Pete Smith fucked up last time round,” a Katharine Street source said today. “The government planning inspector rejected their submission in the Local Plan for all these sites – parks, graveyards, public open spaces – to be given protection against development.
“Thing is, as Scott and Smith have shown, and if they decide that they want to, they’re devious enough to build on green spaces anyway.
“They did that by building on Metropolitan Open Land beside Croydon Arena, and they’ve done it again on what was designated as Green Belt with the playing fields opposite Lloyd Park in order to let a selective free school be built there. Only last week, despite objections from the National Trust and all kinds of conservation groups, as well as hundreds of residents, they helped to push through a building scheme on a site right next to Selsdon Woods.
“Who’s to say that they won’t use this consultation exercise, rather than to demonstrate the firm public demand for parks and green spaces, to turn it around and prove that these open spaces do not have sufficient support from the public, and Scott and Smith can hand them over to Brick by Brick to build more of their little boxes on?”
Such suspicion of the council’s motives over this is supported by the low-key manner in which Scott and his colleagues have publicised the consultation. “If the public don’t take part,” said the source, “then Scott’s case for concreting over our green spaces is made for him.”
It is not only with the public that the Labour council is being less than straightforward. In the case of Lewis, there is growing suspicions over the amount of mendacity being deployed even with loyal party colleagues.
Lewis took to the usually neglected Labour Group website to plead on his libraries plan that, “I have been asked recently whether we are planning to redevelop any of our existing libraries. I can be clear and say that we currently have no plans to redevelop any of our libraries.”
Note the use of the weasel word “currently”.
Because as recently as last December, during a council scrutiny meeting, Joy Prince, one of Lewis’s Labour council colleagues, asked: “I’m wondering to what extent you’re working with asset colleagues on how we can maximise the value or the income from the assets which are library buildings? Is there scope for, I don’t know, building flats on top of them, while obviously getting money from that to buy books or whatever?”
In answer, Lewis said, “We are absolutely looking at how we can get the best value from our libraries portfolio.”
Perhaps, currently, Lewis will say that despite the report which he commissioned, he has no plans to de-professionalise the borough’s library service with an introduction of more volunteers, or to use artificial intelligence in place of union member staff to run library branches.
Certainly, Croydon South CLP members will be keen to hear what Lewis has to say. Currently, of course.
- This piece of local news reporting was brought to you without a penny of subsidy from the BBC or any local councils. If you want to support independent local journalism, sign up today as a supporter. For just £4 per month, you qualify for special discounts and offers. Click here for more details
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and BBC London News
- Inside Croydon named Journalist of the Year at 2018 Anna Kennedy Online Autism Heroes Awards
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: For two consecutive years, 2017 and 2018, Inside Croydon has been the source for two award-winning nominations in Private Eye magazine’s annual celebration of civic cock-ups
- In 2018, Inside Croydon had 1.6million pages viewed by more than half a million unique visitors
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or what to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org