EXCLUSIVE: Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on how neighbourhood associations have decided that they won’t any longer accept being ‘contemptuously ignored’ by those in power in the borough
Council leader Tony Newman and the troika who control the Town Hall could soon face a real challenge to their iron-like grip on the running of the borough, with at least eight residents’ associations understood to be acting together in a bid to bring in a directly elected mayor.
In an email from one residents’ association member, widely circulated at the weekend and seen by Inside Croydon, they call for backing for a petition which could trigger a borough-wide referendum on the issue.
The Labour-controlled council, and in particular its planning committee, is accused of “contemptuously ignoring the heartfelt objections of local residents and residents’ associations”.
The de facto chair of the planning committee is the splenetic Paul Scott (annual council allowances: £45,168), who is the best mate of Newman (£55,546). Newman’s deputy leader is Alison Butler (£48,660), the cabinet member for housing, who just happens to be married to Scott.
Directly elected mayors were made possible under the Local Government Act 2000. London has had a citywide Mayor for the past 19 years, and the capital already has directly elected mayors in the boroughs of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. All the post-holders are currently Labour politicians.
The initiative for a directly elected mayor in Croydon has arisen following a meeting held last month of residents’ associations, where the council’s latest parking tax – the proposed 375 per cent hike in resident parking permit fees on the spurious premise of reducing emissions – and disquiet over planning issues were high among concerns. The meeting was addressed by Tory MP Chris Philp and Mario Creatura, a Coulsdon Town councillor and prospective Conservative candidate for Croydon Central.
“From Norbury to Old Coulsdon, and everywhere in between, all were concerned about council policies,” Creatura tweeted.
In his email sent over the weekend, Addington Residents’ Association member Paul Bearman says that he and his colleagues believe the time has come to make the Town Hall more accountable to more of the borough.
Bearman says that at the meeting, “There was an overwhelming feeling that the way Croydon is currently run means that our views are routinely ignored by Croydon Council.”
The residents’ groups, most of which have it written into their constitutions that they are to be “apolitical”, are to hold a meeting in Purley next Tuesday to look at changing Croydon Council’s governance and moving to introduce a directly elected mayor.
The residents’ frustrations have been simmering for some time.
Bearman suggests in his email that it would make for a more accountable local authority to have a mayor elected by the votes of the whole borough, rather than a council leader appointed by as few as 21 mates he or she has in his pocket, all determined by a secret meeting in a Town Hall room, which is the case at present.
Newman and his numpties have used the council allowances system to shore up their own positions since Labour was elected into power at the Town Hall in 2014.
By making a raft of cabinet and deputy appointments, all accompanied by generous, tax-payer funded “special responsibility allowances”, Newman knows that for more than half of the 41 councillors in the Labour group, a large part of their annual income is entirely dependent on loyalty to him, Scott and Butler.
The total wage bill for both Croydon’s 70 Labour and Conservative councillors is £1,500,000 per year.
Interestingly, despite the role that they played in the residents’ meeting last month, Croydon Tories have not yet broken cover to assert their position over a directly elected mayor, an indication, perhaps, that they might be equally reluctant to have a new tier of local government which has a more direct relationship with the electorate.
Bearman’s email attempts to avoid accusations of political partisanship. In it, he says that the parties ignore residents in almost all the borough’s wards, where elections are a usually foregone conclusion for one or other of the Croydon political duopoly.
Bearman says that only voters in the most marginal wards in Addiscombe, New Addington and Waddon get proper attention from the council, as those are the wards that tip the balance on who wins control of the Town Hall.
For the rest, they get dealt with contemptuously by those elected supposedly to represent them, and by the council’s professional staff.
“We feel that we are being ignored mainly due to the fact that, under the current system, control of the Town Hall is decided by just a handful of marginal wards,” he wrote.
“To control the council, the ruling group can ignore the rest of the borough where the result in each ward is a foregone conclusion. Further, the current leader of the council is chosen behind closed doors by a handful of councillors from the ruling party, further undermining accountability to the public.”
A directly elected mayor would mean that in a borough-wide election, every vote would count. Effectively disenfranchised Labour voters in Kenley and disenfranchised Tory voters in Thornton Heath would gain a voice they don’t have currently in how the council is run.
It is on planning, and particularly the abrasive Scott, that has really fired up the residents’ groups. According to Bearman, the recent planning approval for homes in the Selsdon bird sanctuary was the last straw “which has upset people from all different political parties”.
By law, the residents need to collect 13,291 signatures – the “verification number”, 5 per cent of the borough’s population of eligible voters – to force the council to hold a referendum across Croydon on whether the people want a directly elected mayor. The residents are hoping to get a referendum staged on May 5 next year, the same day as the London Mayoral and Assembly elections.
However, they expect strong challenges from Jo Negrini, the council’s £220,000 per year chief executive, and her very close colleague, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, to stop the petition and any possibility of a referendum. They might have their work cut out.
It is perhaps unsurprising that MP Philp is named in the Bearman email as a supporter of the move. More problematic for Newman’s numpties, potentially, is that Croydon South’s Constituency Labour Party has also resolved to support a directly elected mayor.
Unlike now, having a directly elected mayor would allow the Labour membership to choose their candidate. It is possible that there could be a regionally imposed all-woman shortlist for the Labour candidate. And Momentum, the Jeremy Corbyn support group, would have an opportunity to unseat the current Blairite leadership of the council.
Entirely unsurprisingly, Newman’s numpties are vehemently opposed, even though it could be argued that a move to a more accountable, elected mayor was implicit in their last election manifesto.
The Croydon Labour local elections 2018 manifesto – the drafting of which was keenly overseen by the Newman-Butler-Scott troika – talked of, “Holding an independent review of the council’s governance structure, bringing together best practice across the country and beyond to develop a model tailored to the needs and aspirations of Croydon residents.
“The main goal of the review would be to enhance local democracy and community engagement.” We added the italics for emphasis.
Newman’s numpties managed to break this election pledge within weeks of being re-elected.
They abandoned the promised independent review and instead chose to spend up to £25,000 on a committee stuffed with seven Croydon councillors – who by definition, and council allowances, are anything but independent – and chaired by Dame Moira Gibb.
Dame Moira is the former chief exec of Labour-controlled Camden Council.
The panel also had one additional “independent” member, Anne Smith, plucked from the obscurity of the council-run ethics committee.
Smith’s previous loyal service to the interests of the council saw her chair the 2015 internal investigation into #WadGate – where the Tory council leader Mike Fisher managed to award himself a whopping great pay-rise and forget to mention it to anyone. With Smith as chair, that five-month inquiry into the scandal saw the investigating panel meet only twice and never bother to interview a single witness.
Dame Moira and the non-independent review panel was supposed to deliver its report on the borough’s governance with their findings by mid-May 2019. They are late in delivering their work.
And just to make sure that the non-independent panel did not stray into considering anything as heretical as introducing a more accountable system of local government, even before they had their first meeting, Newman banned them from even looking at the notion of a directly elected mayor.
In the report drafted last September to establish the non-independent review panel, submitted for the approval of the Newman-controlled council cabinet, the idea of a directly elected mayor was ruled out of bounds from the start.
The “review starts from the pretext that a Directly Elected Mayor is not favoured, as it was not an option outlined in the Labour Administration 2018 Election Manifesto” was the piffle submitted for rubber-stamping in the report.
The report also asserted, laughably, that having one carefully chosen, hand-picked “independent” member from the ethics committee to add to the party political councillors would ensure that the whole review would be… ahem… independent.
“Independent member x 1 – from the Ethics Committee would help ensure objectivity and the wider impacts and implications of the review are considered,” stated the report – which had been carefully dictated by Simon Hall, Newman’s trusted finance cabinet member.
Dame Moira’s interim report on the governance review is due to come to the council on July 15, but the final report looks like it won’t be ready at least until the New Year, punted far away and deep into the long grass. Or so Newman thought.
The move by the residents’ associations could wrest control of the debate over Croydon having a directly elected mayor away from the control freakery of Newman’s office at the Town Hall.
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