Political editor WALTER CRONXITE on the mounting numbers behind a campaign seeking to change the way the council is run
The patronage that keeps Croydon’s Town Hall troika of Tony Newman, Alison Butler and Paul Scott in power is looking to be under mounting pressure, following well-attended meetings this month seeking change to the way the council is run.
There may have been but a handful of people out on the streets protesting about the way Brick by Brick schemes are imposed on neighbourhoods, but inside the (relative) warmth of church and community halls in Purley, Sanderstead and Old Coulsdon this month, hundreds of residents have turned out to see what can be done to overturn Newman’s increasingly unpopular regime.
Seven residents associations, Tory MP Chris Philp (pictured below) and the Croydon South Labour Party have hosted the meetings, as they seek support for a referendum on whether the council should be led by a directly elected mayor.
To secure a referendum, petitioners have to secure signatures in hard copy form from registered electors to the equivalent of 5 per cent of all Croydon’s registered voters. In law this is known as the Verification Number. This number has to be published annually. In Croydon, the magic number is 13,291.
Organisers of the meetings say that residents are flocking both to the petition, where they have 9,500 residents have signed up so far, and to give lots of small individual cash donations to the campaign.
Meetings have revolved around explaining mechanics, angry complaining about planning and councillors Scott, Butler and Newman and groaning about Brick by Brick, the council-owned, loss-making in-house house-builder (total purpose-built council homes completed since 2015: three).
Gerry Meredith-Smith, the chairman of the campaign, says that he wants to see Croydon Council “run for the benefit of residents rather than for the benefit of councillors”, with “270,000 voters choosing who leads the council instead of just 21 councillors who make up the majority of the ruling party”.
Newman’s position as council leader, which he has held since 2014, is indeed determined at a secret meeting of the (now) 41 Labour councillors; Newman, meanwhile, decides which of those councillors get paid council allowances, and how much. Such patronage is Croydon’s very own version of “cash for votes”.
“Just four of 28 wards decide who runs the council with safe red or blue majorities in all other wards,” Meredith-Smith says, maintaining that this borough version of democracy effectively disenfranchises the majority of voters.
What the DEMOC campaign claims is that by having a democratically elected mayor, candidates would have to appeal to voters across the borough.
But at the meetings held so far (the next is due to take place in Kenley on February 27, with others planned for the north of the borough next month), dry discussion of electoral systems has been overshadowed by the evident anger among residents over the council’s planning system.
Residents talk of social media posts by Councillor Scott boasting of building flats on every road in Croydon.
Philp, who has enjoyed a positive reception at all the meetings, wins ready applause when he details how Croydon Council set a higher target for building homes in the borough than is required by the London Plan. Philp, who until this week’s cabinet reshuffle was the Minister for London, says that 75 per cent of his constituency casework is now about planning.
Philp says that residents are “contemptuously ignored” by Councillor Scott.
Philp alleges that Croydon’s Conservative councillors have been told in confidence by Labour colleagues that “political assumptions are made” about how residents in new developments will vote and that consistent votes on the planning committee of six Labour members winning against four Tories in favour of applications speak of “political direction”.
As Inside Croydon has reported, some members of the planning committee have even said that they have been “whipped” to vote through all Brick by Brick schemes. The whipping of members of planning committees along party lines is illegal.
Outside of planning issues, Meredith-Smith, who is the chair the Whitgift Estate Residents’ Association, hopes that having someone as head of the council elected directly by all the residents will mean that that person will be a “unifier”.
He also expects the council “to be as difficult as they can be” in resisting the petition. The council might try to stop the petition by running down the campaign’s money by recourse to the courts.
Most Labour councillors are opposed to a directly elected mayor, having been told by Newman that his less-than-independent governance review – which has cost more than £100,000 and taken more than a year to deliver its report – will make a few minor recommendations which will cement the status quo.
Philp says that Newman told him that he did not think the petition for directly elected mayor would get enough signatures, but the packed public meetings show that anger with the attitude of the Town Hall troika is driving evermore people towards supporting the directly elected mayor campaign.
It seems that their slogan “When did the council last listen to you?” has struck a chord throughout Croydon.
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