Even in the middle of the greatest crisis the borough has faced since World War II, there’s nothing stopping the council for gerrymandering on behalf of the beleaguered leader, Tony Newman.
The latest edition of Your Croydon, the council’s Pravda, has managed to drop on to the doormats of households across the borough despite the coronavirus lockdown, carrying with it Newman’s very own version of a contagion: Fake News.
Before the lockdown started, Croydon Town Hall’s Donald Trump had been feeling the strain, as a coalition of residents’ associations, the borough’s sole remaining Tory MP and one of the three Labour Party branches had managed between them to collect more than 13,000 signatures in support of replacing Newman as the unelected so-called “strong leader” of the council with a democratically elected mayor.
DEMOC, the campaign for a directly elected mayor, has suspended its activities for the duration. But that hasn’t prevented Newman from continuing his rearguard action to save his political position, and his £56,000 per year in council allowances.
Newman has used the council’s public information magazine to make the claim that the Town Hall has undergone some kind of transformative change to the way it is run and that somehow, overnight, it will suddenly include many more people in the decision-making process.
This might be a little hard to swallow for those who realise that this has come from the same Labour council leader who has spent the past five years doing his utmost to exclude nearly 50 of the borough’s 70 elected representatives – Labour councillors as well as the Conservatives – from having a proper say in the way that the borough is managed.
Until now, if a Labour backbench councillor wanted to ask a hard question of the leader or a cabinet member at a Town Hall meeting, Newman has had one of his trusted lackeys vet the question and even amend its wording if it was deemed not to be sufficiently “on-message”.
Newman’s Pravda – written, printed and distributed at vast cost to the Council Tax-payers of the borough – nonetheless claims, apparently in all seriousness, “The council will combine the best of the leader and cabinet model with the committee system, giving backbench councillors greater opportunity to contribute.”
Under the deliberately duplicitous headline “Boost for local democracy in Croydon”, an article which is notably (deliberately?) light on hard detail manages to greatly exaggerate the watered-down proposals that eventually emerged from a working group, hand-picked by Newman, that took two years to review the council governance system and managed to cost Council Tax-payers more than £100,000.
“More people will shape local decision-making following radical changes to the council’s constitution,” Pravda claims.
Newman and his tight-knit clique – Alison Butler and her husband Paul Scott – got the outcome from the governance review that they had craved, of barely any change whatsoever, with the Strong Leader model kept in place and some councillors – all chosen by the leader himself, of course – being appointed to “advisory committees”, established without any real powers, to… well, advise.
“It’s just a re-boot of the system that keeps Tony in power,” a Katharine Street source said. “Patronage v2, if you like.”
There are to be new “Citizens Assemblies”, but people on those Assemblies are also chosen by the council (meaning Newman), and they appear to amount to little more than talking shops and focus groups.
The real decisions would still be made by Newman’s Troika, under the tight control of council chief executive Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini and her very well-paid team of unaccountable executive directors.
Under the recommended reforms, the council will publish a forward plan with a six-month time horizon on what the council will look at over that period. Open data will be fostered. More decisions will be judged to be “key”, with a concern for decisions that have a community impact.
This might be seen as the council’s belated attempt to defuse residents’ mounting complaints and the effective DEMOC campaign slogan, “When did the council last listen to you?”
There is a growing awareness among residents’ groups of the council over-promising and under-delivering.
In the pages of the same edition of Your Croydon, there’s talk of “council homes” being built, when everyone knows that these are not municipal council houses with all the benefits they bring to council tenants. These are Brick By Brick homes, built using hundreds of millions of pounds of council and GLA funding with a different type of tenure and affordability.
The June 2021 implementation of even these modest changes looks in any case likely to be delayed because of the covid-19 crisis. And May 2022, for now at least, is when the next round of council elections are due to be held.
It is said that the public and councillors will have more time to speak at council meetings, but no firm proposals have come forward to allow for this. There’s been no proposals for there to be more meetings of the full council, and no more time is being added to those meetings. The committees set up to advise – and then be ignored – might provide such speaking possibilities.
Chaired by Dame Moira Gibb, the governance review was damning of the culture of the council. “Many Members believed they could not influence decisions and that their knowledge and experience of local communities was not put to good use,” the review’s final report states..
“The public did not see the best of the council and also felt excluded from decisions that were important to them.”
It will surprise no one that this quote from the governance review’s report makes no appearance in Newman’s latest edition of Pravda.
It seems very likely that Dame Moira’s withering critique will, though, be recounted repeatedly when DEMOC recommences its campaigning and when a referendum is held with a proposal for a more fundamental change in the way the council is run.
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