Political editor WALTER CRONXITE hears the starting gun for a five-week campaign which will present a series of unwelcome challenges for Blairite council leader Tony Newman
Remember, remember, the seventh of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
Or something like that. The Fairfield ward by-election has been set for the week of Fireworks Night, on Thursday November 7, according to a notice published on the council website this morning – ensuring that some wannabe politicians’ hopes, and thousands of unread campaign leaflets, will be heading for a bonfire soon after.
The by-election is being held following the sudden resignation last week of Labour councillor Niro Sirisena, under circumstances which council leader Tony Newman has still failed to fully explain beyond the description of a “serious incident” in a brief statement.
The November 7 polling day comes exactly one week after “Brexit Day”, the October 31 deadline which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said will see Britain leave the European Union with or without an exit deal. And while the Fairfield ward election is supposed to be about local issues – street cleaning, parking charges, Council Tax, the conduct of our elected representatives and council leadership, and so forth – it seems inevitable that Brexit will loom large in the campaigning, and the considerations of voters.
The November 7 date was certainly not of the choosing of Newman.
The Labour leader and his close colleagues, despite being fully aware of Sirisena’s resignation when they were at their own party conference in Brighton at the end of last month, chose not to trigger the by-election immediately, it is thought in an effort to co-ordinate dates with any possible General Election being called at Westminster.
With the Houses of Parliament in a Mexican stand-off over the timings of votes of no-confidence, the delaying or revoking of the Article 50 notice of the UK leaving the EU, and the bind of the Fixed Term Parliament Act (another gift to the nation from the gormless David Cameron), the chances of voters in Fairfield having just a single visit to their polling station this autumn was increasingly remote.
When a vacancy occurs, as it has done in Fairfield, it takes just two Croydon residents to request the calling of a by-election before the borough’s chief returning officer – council chief exec Jo Negrini – has to make the necessary arrangements to do so within 35 working days. Negrini has presented Fairfield voters with a five-week campaign, and has set a deadline of October 11 – one week tomorrow – for all candidates for the election to be declared.
The by-election’s timing could be awkward for Newman’s Labour group, and while the single seat to be contested will not affect their control of the Town Hall whether they win or lose, as a mid-term test of their effectiveness, Fairfield could focus a few minds.
Until 2018, Fairfield was a Tory-held ward, though boundary changes helped to make it winnable by Labour, who took all three ward seats.
But politics, of whatever hue, at this time seems a tough sell. Labour canvassers, including the Croydon Central constituency MP Sarah Jones, were out at the weekend knocking on doors in the ward. Some relate considerable disaffection with politics, and politicians, even from their own party supporters.
So questions on the doorstep about the need for a by-election at this time, after the controversial resignation of a serving councillor less than 18 months after being elected, will need to be answered.
The November 7 polling date also comes just as the Labour council is slapping a £300 parking tax on many of the residents of the ward.
With the town centre being full of multiple occupation buildings and few larger homes, on-street parking is a widespread necessity, and the council’s unconvincing claims to somehow be saving the planet with its 375per cent hike in parking permit fees may cost them votes.
Fly-tipping is a huge, and continuing, problem, and one which despite earnest attempts by Labour’s Stuart Collins over the last five years, they have failed to solve. Lack of proper street-sweeping rounds – Labour will blame Tory austerity cuts, though they signed a contract with Veolia which made streetcleaners redundant – and over-flowing bins on the streets and in the town centre’s parks have all had a damaging effect on the state of Fairfield ward.
Fairfield also includes the Whitgift Centre, Fairfield Halls and Surrey Street market, three flagship areas of council business which have all been failed in one way or another by Newman’s administration.
The Fairfield Halls re-opened last month, more than a year late and £11million over-budget. But the bungled works remain unfinished and incomplete.
The promised £1.4billion Westfield redevelopment of the shopping centre hasn’t even started yet, more than seven years after it was promised, with uncertainty over revised plans and Newman refusing to release details of his discussions with the developers.
Surrey Street, the ancient street market, meanwhile continues to decline, its biggest boost having come this week with Banksy’s retail art outlet opening up on Church Street – something which the council had little, if anything, to do with.
And then there’s the growing resentment towards the council over its loss-making Brick by Brick in-house housebuilders, who have seemingly managed to undermine the quality of life for existing residents neighbouring every site they have developed, while managing to deliver not a single new council home in four years, or achieve even their own targets for “affordable” homes, in the midst of a housing crisis.
Given the depth of feeling among residents over those issues, and the rapid turnover of residents in the Fairfield ward and its shifting demographic, fighting this by-election against the background of the potential scandal which prompted it will make it a challenging few weeks for Blairite Newman and his numpties.
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