KEN LEE reports – from a safe distance – on the mixed messages put out by Newman and Negrini over the covid-19 pandemic
At least four of Croydon’s elected councillors have quarantined themselves after displaying symptoms or being in contact with someone else suspected of having the coronavirus.
Inside Croydon understands that one of the councillors who has been in self-isolation for the past fortnight or so after showing some symptoms of the illness is Paul Scott, the cabinet member for planning and the controversial de facto chair of the planning committee.
And yet Croydon Council appears determined to continue with staging public meetings at the Town Hall, with a cabinet meeting (oh the irony) to discuss measures being taken to contain and treat the coronavirus still due to go ahead tomorrow night.
Some other meetings, last week and for the coming week, have been cancelled, though the appointments board, the pension committee and the general purposes and audit committee all met last week.
Currently still on the council’s calendar for next week is Thursday’s session of the planning committee, where veteran Selhurst councillor Toni Letts is supposed to chair the meeting, alongside the domineering Scott.
Letts is in her 70s, and part of the vulnerable age group which advice from Public Health England suggests should be self-isolating in order to avoid contracting the potentially deadly virus.
By noon today, Croydon health services had reported 81 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the borough – the seventh-highest among London boroughs, and a number which has accelerated quickly over the past week.
Some other local authorities have suspended the usual business of their councils in order to avoid the spread of covid-19, even though statutory functions would usually demand that certain meetings should take place in public.
Croydon’s leadership continues to send out mixed messages.
Last week, the council chief executive Jo Negrini wrote to all council staff to order them to work as usual at the office, despite few of them having what might be regarded as “essential” jobs that could not be tackled through working from home. But by Friday, the council had its libraries, the Museum of Croydon and adult education buildings on lockdown.
On Thursday, Tony Newman, the council leader, issued a public message. The video appears to show him addressing the borough from a cupboard under the Town Hall stairs. Was it recorded by a camera operator positioned a full two metres away from the local politician?
In his address, Newman said, “Most importantly, we want you all to stay healthy and safe, so please do follow the NHS UK advice.”
And he added, “We all need to play our part to avoid the spread of germs and viruses, including coronavirus, and reduce the impact on NHS services… The government is advising those who are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus to follow social-distancing measures.”
Yet Newman is among those who are expected to attend tomorrow night’s cabinet meeting, unless the council does a U-turn in the meantime and opts to cancel the public meeting, and instead revert to something more practical under the difficult circumstances, such as conducting business meetings via Skype or similar business communications software.
There have been repeated suggestions that one significant reason that the council continues to try to conduct a “business as usual” approach is that its staff are ill-equipped, or even unequipped, to be able to work from home.
The council’s contradictory messages and actions will also make it more difficult for the public to have their voices heard over planning matters – since members of the public are to be excluded from this Thursday’s planning committee meeting.
The council’s website states: “Following on from advice from the government and Public Health England, the council continues to adopt a proportionate and responsible approach to the current pandemic, whilst recognising that we need to continue to deliver our statutory services as expected, including the decision-making of the council.
“Although our committees are meetings ‘held in public’, we fully recognise that attendance will be problematic for those who might be self-isolating, those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions or for those who might be concerned about developing symptoms when gathering amongst others. Therefore, we strongly encourage you to adopt a responsible approach when deciding whether (or not) to attend forthcoming committee meetings.
“We will be ensuring that decision-making meetings are fully webcast – so that residents are able to view proceedings via the live feed; the recorded webcast will also be available to be view after the event…
“For planning committee and planning sub-committee, members of the public and applicants are normally invited to attend and contribute as part of the process, and for council meetings members of the public are invited to ask questions of cabinet members in accordance with the council’s constitution.
“In order to avoid the need for members of the public to attend such meetings in order to contribute, residents, or applicants/agents for planning committee or sub-committee, wishing to maintain their representation rights but not wishing to attend in person are invited to submit a written statement to Democratic Services by the normal deadlines… This statement will then be read out by an officer or the Mayor.
“We apologise for the measures we feel obliged to impose during this difficult time for all of us. We are keen to ensure that those engaging in decisions taken in public are valued and are suitably engaged whilst at the same time, making sure that we adopt a responsible and proportionate response, in line with the current advice issued by Public Health England.”
A concerned Katharine Street source said today: “There’s just so many problems with the council’s approach. On the one hand, they are going against all public health advice about not staging gatherings of people to avoid spreading coronavirus.
“On the other hand, they appear to be using the pandemic emergency to disenfanchise the public from having their say in important issues, such as planning. Other councils have sought to suspend public business – you have to ask why won’t Negrini do the same?”
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The health issues and advice around Covid-19 must be their priority. Second should be the now rather quicker ticking of the time bomb of their massive investment in commercial property and private house building. Early intervention on both would be wise.