KEN LEE on some of the more gruesome findings in a council-commissioned report about Croydon’s ineffective council
Even the majority of Croydon’s elected councillors don’t think Croydon Council is “very effective”. That’s just one of the damning findings buried in a council-commissioned report which, when it gets passed at the Town Hall tonight, is likely to deliver little real change.
As Tony Newman flails around trying to preserve his position, and his £56,000 annual allowances, amid the collapse of the Westfield scheme, the crisis at the Fairfield Halls and the full-frontal assault on his authority from “mere” residents and their directly elected mayor campaign, tonight the council leader will push through his version of “reform”.
Along with the discussion tonight of the council’s annual budget, Council Tax increases and a more-heat-than-light emergency debate over Westfield, Newman expects to get approval for the council’s long-delayed governance review.
But as expected, the recommendations of the tightly controlled panel are so watered-down as to be pretty meaningless.
Certainly, the system of patronage by which Newman uses millions of pounds of public money in allowances through the discredited cabinet system to control the Labour group and maintain his own position will be largely untouched.
A year late, and costing more than £100,000, the governance review, chaired by Dame Moira Gibb, was not even allowed by Newman and his numpties to consider the introduction of a directly elected mayor, nor was it permitted under its terms of reference simply to ditch the Blairite “strong leader” model currently used and return to the tried-and-tested committees system of local government.
Newman’s propaganda department at the council would have you believe that under recommendations made by Dame Moira’s report, “More people will be able and encouraged to shape local decision-making in Croydon under new plans to change the council’s constitution and structure for the first time in a generation.”
Newman was quoted as saying, “The democratic link between the community, the council and its leadership is fundamental.” You can just about sense the desperation over the democratically elected mayor campaign.
“We want to hear our residents’ voices as much as possible and we want to benefit from our councillors’ knowledge and experience of the communities they represent,” Newman said, after spending the past six years doing the opposite.
“These changes ensure every councillor has the ability to directly hold the executive to account on any issue, and ensure that everyone locally knows how and when they can get involved.”
The review, the council claims, is intended “to boost participation in local democracy and ensure decision-making is open, fair and transparent”.
If the report is agreed tonight, as it surely will be, “Croydon will implement an innovative new ‘hybrid’ council system that aims to combine the best of the leader and cabinet model with the committee system,” according to the council’s press release. “New cabinet member advisory committees will provide backbench councillors with the opportunity to contribute at an earlier stage, before decisions are taken.”
But Katharine Street sources who gave evidence to the review panel, including members of the committee, suggest that such recommendations are “a mere sop”, to try to dissolve the growing discontent within the Town Hall from the vast majority of the borough’s 70 elected councillors who feel bypassed by Newman’s cabal of cabinet members and contemptuously ignored by council staff.
According to the report, backbench councillors – who number nearly 50 – say they are left out of the decision-making process altogether.
Dame Moira’s report tells of…
- Councillors who feel decision making is carried out by a small number of councillors and senior officers to the exclusion of the majority of councillors;
- Growing dissatisfaction among elected councillors and members of the public who found it hard to get timely information and to influence decisions;
- Complaints about limited transparency and openness about decisions in the early stages of development which prevented non-cabinet members from contributing to or influencing those decisions while at a formative stage;
- Consultation sometimes being held during the later stages of the decision-making process, providing residents with insufficient time or information to participate effectively.
Dame Moira’s panel included two “independents”, carefully hand-picked by Newman and his council chief exec, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, and also included nine councillors – five Labour and four Tories.
- Hamida Ali, a councillor for the same ward as Newman and his best mate, Paul Scott, who was fast-tracked to a cabinet job (annual allowances: £45,168);
- Sean Fitzsimons, the chair of the scrutiny committee and tireless apologist for the council, who saw his allowances hiked by a handy six grand by Newman to put him on cabinet-level pay (£41,798);
- Clive Fraser, Newman’s Labour group chief whip, whose task is to ensure everyone toes Newman’s party line (£26,317, to top up his local authority worker’s pension);
- Simon Hall, the Newman loyalist who oversees the borough finances (£45,168); and
- Joy Prince, the only Labour councillor on the review who is not on Newman’s “payroll”, a backbencher who chairs the council’s Labour group (so just a basic £11,463).
Yet even with the panel loaded with Newman’s narks, they could not suppress the growing ill-will and discontent over the manner that the council is being run under Negrini and Newman.
The report states that there is a need for a cultural shift in how councillors and council staff operate and interact. “This will require a shift in culture, mindset and language presently used by the council.”
According to the report, 58 per cent of councillors said that the council was not very effective. A survey of councillors found that Newman’s cabinet members did not welcome views from backbench councillors from either party.
Councillors even admitted that they have abandoned using the council’s own member enquiries system as they lacked confidence in the system to respond in a timely and efficient manner.
According to the report, “60 current and former councillors contributed through surveys and workshops as well as through a meeting of all members [meaning councillors] to discuss the draft findings…
“There was nevertheless considerable dissatisfaction with the present arrangements. Many members believed they could not influence decisions and that their knowledge and experience of their local communities was not put to good use.
“The public did not see the best of the council and also felt excluded from decisions that were important to them.”
The report’s foreword makes it clear that the purpose of the review was always there to be seen to be doing something – anyone remember the Fairness Review from 2015? No, didn’t think so… – while ensuring that nothing much threatened Newman’s status quo.
Dame Moira wrote: “The panel does not believe that the answer lies in structural change to governance, such as a return to the committee system, but rather lies in improving the current culture around decision-making.”
After it is nodded through tonight, a working group of councillors (another one) will be set up to implement the modest changes, with the intention that a new structure will be written into the council constitution this summer with full implementation in 2021.
Of course, all that may be rendered an irrelevance (albeit a very expensive one) if DEMOC, the campaign for a democratically elected mayor, gets its 13,000-plus signatures required to force Newman and Negrini to stage a borough-wide referendum.
It now seems very likely that the signature target will be achieved in the next couple of months. That will mean that Newman and some of the Croydon Labour Party will have to concoct some sort of platform on which to campaign against a proposal that chooses the borough’s leader with an electorate of 300,000, instead of one that chooses the council leader through a secret Town Hall meeting where just 41 people – the majority of whom are in the leader’s pocket through patronage – get to vote.
Such is the feeling that the outcome of the mayoral referendum is inevitable among Croydon’s Labour councillors that some are already “on manoeuvres” to secure selection to be their party’s candidate to become Croydon’s first directly elected mayor. Much to Newman’s evident irritation and discomfort.
- Read the governance review report here.
- Read the council officials’ report going before tonight’s Town Hall meeting here.
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