TOWN HALL SKETCH: Who are we to believe? The last full council meeting until October descended into accusations from politicians of lying (ahh, the sweet irony), while the public’s petitions were re-written for them by council officials, until debate was ended when the Labour leader decided that he wanted to go down the pub.
It was all so much hot air, according to WALTER CRONXITE
We probably all need to have a word with Andrew Fisher, the policy chief in Jeremy Corbyn’s office, who is understood to be the person to have thought it a good idea before the 2017 General Election to get the Labour leader to embrace the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and came up with the wholly admirable slogan of “For the many, not the few”.
As slogans go, it’s certainly a whole heap better than “Strong and stable” (oh, how we laughed!), but it has also meant that less capable and less well-read political figures have since been racking their brains, or more likely scouring Wikipedia, for little bon mots to call their own, to provide them with profundity in a soundbyte.
So it is that, last weekend in speeches given in Wandle Park at Croydon Pride and the Mela, Tony Newman was heard to announce his commitment to “Deeds, not words”. As it was coming from Newman, the leader of Labour-controlled Croydon Council, it was immediately rendered into vacuity in a soundbyte.
Of course, Newman’s favourite new saying could have been a whole heap worse. He might have plumped for “Make Croydon Great Again”, an update on his 2014 effort, “Ambitious for Croydon”. Imagine it: Newman and his little clique that controls the Town Hall all kitted out in baseball caps plastered in the slogan.
Deeds not words: what does he actually mean by it?
On Monday night, as the full meeting of the council was about to enter its fourth hour, Newman took it upon himself to offer the other 69 borough councillors a drink if they agreed to curtail business in the Town Hall chamber and scurry off with him next door to the Spreadeagle before last orders. In typical Newman style, his generous offer was made on the basis that someone else would be picking up the bill.
In this case, Newman announced, the drinks would be on his long-suffering deputy, Stuart Collins.
There was a strange contradiction about Monday’s meeting, as it dragged on, and on, and on…
It was all words, and no real deeds.
Despite an agenda over-stuffed with important business, and despite the Town Hall clock moving ever-closer to 11pm, Newman and his colleagues had found no time to discuss the handy little pay rise they have recently awarded themselves – clearly Tory leader Tim Pollard’s opposition group welcomes the 2 per cent increase in their allowances just as much as the Labour group. Deeds, not words, eh Tony?
Important changes to the borough’s constitution, which will concentrate more power in the hands of Newman’s mate, Paul Scott, managed to be passed without much dissent from the opposition.
Nor was there any time to discuss the council’s long-delayed governance review, even though this, too, had been included on the agenda. Which makes it another Newman manifesto promise kicked deep into the long grass. Deeds, not words.
A report about children’s services, introduced by cabinet member Alisa Flemming, was allowed to pass without a single question, from Labour or Conservative councillors. And this coming 24 months after Croydon’s children’s services department was declared “inadequate” by Ofsted inspectors, a status it retains to this day despite millions of pounds being spent on trying to recover the situation. Deeds, not words.
There was certainly no debate on the future of Croydon’s public libraries, whose sites are being eyed greedily by the council’s in-house house-builders. This has arisen after the council commissioned a consultants’ report which includes the recommendation of the closure and “relocation” of up to four of the borough’s libraries.
Such is the concern over the threat to one library, Shirley, that even the local Labour MP, Sarah Jones, began a campaign to save it. Yet on Monday, Newman, with the connivance of the borough’s chief executive, Jo Negrini, contrived to rule out a Tory motion on the topic in case it became all too embarrassing for the leader. Deeds, but in this case no words.
This was Croydon’s last full council meeting until October. Despite having so much important business to conduct, Newman had decided that he would use much of the meeting as an opportunity for him to grandstand over the council’s recently discovered enthusiasm for saving the world.
Newman used lobbying from Extinction Rebellion protestors – one of three groups of residents gathered at the Town Hall on Monday – as the basis for a bit of diversionary debating, moving focus away from other areas where things have not been going quite so well for his Labour council of late.
One of the questioners in the public gallery, Green Party activist Peter Underwood, when asking why the council’s billion-pound pension had not divested itself from fossil fuel shares, quoted Newman’s “deeds not words” promises from the weekend.
We really ought to know Newman well enough by now: he’s all words, and few deeds. Were Croydon’s council leader to take a vow of silence for six months, some believe that global warming might be reversed because of the immediate reduction in the volume of hot air coming from the Town Hall.
Newman came to power in 2014 on a local elections manifesto promise to make Croydon London’s greenest borough.
Since when, he’s allowed an industrial-scale waste incinerator to be built on the borough boundary, he has set up a house-building company that is concreting over kids’ playgrounds and community green spaces, he’s backing the building of a shopping mall in the town centre which will include car parking for 3,000 vehicles, he’s allowed a school for children from as young as four to be built right next to the heavily polluted A23, and he’s acted as an enthusiastic cheerleader for airport expansion at Gatwick.
Indeed, Newman was challenged from the public gallery with a question about his council’s support for highly polluting air travel at Gatwick. Given this opportunity to show that there is a real shift in the council’s stance on the climate emergency, the Labour leader ignored it.
“We all need to fly less,” Newman chuntered. “It is something we need to look at,” he said, suggesting that he had not already looked at it.
“I don’t want to set targets that are immediately unattainable.”
And then the absolute admission that his new-found Green credentials are smothered in bullshit: “I’d rather invest in the local airport,” Newman said, unable to grasp the unresolvable contradictions inherent in a council declaring a climate emergency while at the same time encouraging airport expansion.
Instead, Newman expressed his confidence that as yet uninvented solar-powered passenger aircraft will assuage all that carbon guilt when he’s collecting his air miles. Which probably proves one of two possibilities: either he thinks the public are stupid, or he is.
Later, Newman told supporters that, “Unlike some councils we have not just moved a motion, but have voted to embed the actions necessary to address this crisis straight into the heart of our policy-making process. In the months ahead we will be launching both a Climate Commission and a Citizens Assembly which will work together with the local community to bring about the changes required, and to give a voice to everyone across our borough.”
Yeah, two more talking shops. These are a Newman stock-in-trade for kicking something down the road and hoping people will forget all about it. Remember his Fairness Commission? Thought not.
But to tackle the climate emergency, Newman has promised a few packets of wild flower seeds for the roadside verges around the borough. Though even that won’t be until next year.
All this was to enable Newman to appear to be doing something, when in fact he’ll have us carrying on paying for rubbish incineration, providing public support for Gatwick, and encouraging cars to drive into central Croydon. Deeds, remember, not words.
Newman’s keenness to debate this, now, was more about saving his own arse than saving the planet.
Among the public galllery on Monday were residents’ groups calling for a directly elected mayor and for a cessation of overdevelopments around the borough, topics that Newman has not appetite for discussing any time soon.
The climate emergency motion was therefore moved up the agenda by a simple device of changing a single word – adding “ecological” in a one-word amendment, something which Conservative councillor Jason Perry described as Newman “hiding behind procedural matters”, and “an affront to democracy”, which might have been overstating matters a tad.
Perry’s group leader, Tim Pollard, suggested that the manipulation of the agenda was “cynical” and “looks silly”, and described the commissions Newman had proposed as “just talking shops”. Or more words, and no deeds.
The council motion which was passed failed even to meet the climate crisis campaigners’ demand for the borough to set a target to have net zero emissions by 2025.
Croydon’s target date is 2030. At a council meeting in Tory-run Bromley on the same evening, they set themselves 2029 for having zero emissions. So Newman can’t even manage to out-Green Bromley’s Conservatives.
The local Extinction Rebellion group left the Town Hall apparently satisfied that they had achieved something, issuing a statement congratulating the council for “‘Telling The Truth’ and declaring a Climate Emergency”.
“Declaring an emergency is an important first step for Croydon, joining the many other local authorities who have made this decision,” they said.
Yet within an hour of the climate campaigners leaving the public gallery, the council was debating another motion, this time put by the Tories, which sought protection from development for the borough’s green spaces and gardens.
Newman’s climate emergency Labour group duly voted against protecting Croydon’s green spaces.
Newman’s council’s widely perceived inability to listen to residents or to accept any criticism was extended to censorship of a public petition which was presented for debate by the Monks Orchard Residents’ Association after collecting the support of more than 5,000 Council Tax-payers.
They had all signed a petition that said, “We the undersigned call on Croydon Council to stop destroying family homes and pursue a Brownfield First policy.”
This was changed by the council to: “We the undersigned call on Croydon Council to pursue a Brownfield First policy.”
According to a council flunky, “It was determined that some wording of the original petition was invalid due to lack of material accuracy.” All very Orwellian.
Tory councillor Helen Pollard spoke of 30 parks in Croydon which had been left without any planning protections from developers. Brick by Brick, the council’s in-house house-builders, she said, were already conducting works to prepare to build on green spaces and back gardens around the borough.
This lit up Newman’s deputy, Alison Butler, who jumped to her feet declaring “Point of clarification, Mr Mayor!
“They’re not doing any works, they’re just doing some preparation work…” Butler’s voice trailed off. Realising that she had just dug herself into a hole, Butler blurted out, “She’s a lying cow!”
Butler quickly offered a not very convincing apology, though to the mayor, rather than to Councillor Pollard.
In fact, Pollard was absolutely right: Brick by Brick has indeed started doing preparation works, leafleting residents near the latest batch of 60 sites which Butler and Newman have determined to hand over for building. The leaflets even state that “specialist surveyors” will be reviewing the sites in the next few weeks.
The leaflets will doubtless also be used to show the council had “consulted” residents, before going ahead, ignoring residents and concreting over their green spaces.
Butler’s bad temper was probably the result of an earlier item of business around another of her pet projects, the landlord licensing scheme. Introduced soon after Labour came to power in the Town Hall in 2014, the landlord licensing scheme is reckoned to have generated £15million-worth of income for the council, yet it appears to have delivered little in the way of benefits or protections for tenants from unscrupulous private landlords.
At £750 per licensed property, Croydon’s is one of the country’s most costly licensing schemes, yet there is a widespread belief that the borough’s private landlords are rarely subjected to any visits from council inspectors to ensure that their properties come up to an acceptable standard, as Butler maintains is the case.
In its first four years, across some 36,000 private rented properties in Croydon, financial penalties have been levied on just 19 landlords, only one landlord has been refused a licence, and two have had their licences revoked.
The licensing scheme has to be renewed in 2020, and in principle the local Tories will be supporting it. “The trouble with the Croydon scheme is that it is one of the most expensive in the land, is a blatant money grab,” said Tim Pollard.
“The likelihood is that many landlords will pass this on to tenants at the next rent review. Most landlords feel they have in no way benefited from the scheme and only a relative handful of tenants have. Tenants have seen a cost, but no real benefit.”
Chris Clark, the relatively new Labour councillor for Fairfield ward, which has a high number of privately rented properties, arrived in the council chamber for the environment discussion wearing a suitably floral shirt, and he spoke passionately in favour of landlord licensing. The Labour motion was easily carried, especially since the Tories abstained, rather than opposed.
“No guts!” Clark could be heard to shout, expressing his contempt for the opposition.
The meeting, which had started at 6.30pm, had been going for nearly three hours before it even reached item 7(b) on the agenda: Questions for the Leader.
Tim Pollard highlighted recent criticisms from the Information Commissioner of Croydon’s poor response times to Freedom of Information requests. “Are you ashamed of the secrecy you preside over?” he asked. Newman blustered through a non-answer.
Asked about the Beddington Lane incinerator, Blairite Newman chose to refer to it as “a heat to energy plant in Waddon”, adopting the preferred language of the incinerator’s commercial operators, and getting the location of the site wrong, too.
And when asked who it was that had signed off on the additional £11million spend for the late-running, over-budget Fairfield Halls, never actually answered the question. “Those decisions were taken at the appropriate level,” was the best non-answer he could offer.
“I celebrate the fact that we are spending £40million on the Fairfield Halls,” he said, without any consideration for the sort of adverse headlines such remarks might generate.
He then resorted to telling completely unverifiable – and therefore made up? – anecdotes of behind-closed-doors meetings with Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London, claiming that the soon-to-be Prime Minister was personally in favour of the Purley “skyscraper”.
It was not long after that that Newman was encouraging everyone to bunk off the rest of the meeting and go down the pub, for drinks paid for with someone else’s money.
Deeds, not words, eh, Tony?
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