The pandemic lockdown has had such a marked impact on the business at the Town Hall that councillors have been told it no longer matters if they don’t attend meetings for six months.
Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, reports
Croydon’s Trumptonesque pomposity goes online tonight.
Delayed by a month because of the coronavirus lockdown, the council’s annual meeting takes place this evening, with the mayor-making ceremony to be conducted in virtual fashion. They even couriered the chain of office round to Maddie Henson’s home for the purpose. No expense spared. Which is nice, for a council that is making 15 per cent of its employees redundant.
So it is that it is Buggin’s Turn for Henson, a loyal supporter of the council’s Labour leader Tony Newman, who steps up after a year as deputy mayor.
Once the chain of office is placed over the head of the Addiscombe East councillor (what do you mean, you’ve never heard of her?), she will see her “special responsibility allowance” soar from the deputy mayor’s already generous £21,206 to the top job’s £30,948. Which is a tidy sum for opening a few fetes and attending a handful of primary school sports days. Or doing even less, under the coronavirus restrictions.
Beyond some low-key charity fund-raising, the role of Croydon’s hand-picked ceremonial mayor is very limited. For example, who can forget last year’s mayor, Humayun Kabir, at the equivalent meeting in 2019, promising to conduct all future council meetings in just 30 minutes flat, and all because our councillors have short attention spans?
That worked so well, didn’t it?
Even to make such a suggestion, in public, suggested that Kabir had not been paying much attention to the council business at the meetings he had been attending.
As well as going online, the council has made other changes, too, including dropping the rule that ward councillors who don’t bother showing up for a council meeting for six months are automatically expelled.
With so few in-person meetings expected to be held over the next six months, and with the council cutting the staff needed to run its resource-heavy virtual meetings, there is a worry that some councillors who are not liked by their respective leaderships enough to be on key committees may not have many opportunities to attend a meeting, even virtually, by the end of the year. It is seen as possible that situations could be created to find a non-attendance excuse to expel troublesome councillors.
Such an exemption shows that the council’s system of governance, under the so-called “Strong Leader model”, with decisions being made only by senior council officials and council leader Tony Newman, with a single cabinet member as co-signatory, has come into its own during the covid-19 crisis.
During the emergency, the vast majority of the borough’s 70 elected councillors have had no formal role in running of the council beyond some behind-closed-doors online party meetings.
The harder working councillors (and there are some) are doing their casework online or over the ‘phone.
There is little public accountability for Newman and his cabinet, although there will be a full council meeting, held online, next week.
Council planning meetings, which carried on into the teeth of the covid-19 lockdown but in reduced format, have returned to having 10 councillors attend, albeit virtually, after the council’s expensively assembled team of digital specialists finally managed to find a way of matching the local tennis club and residents’ association and stage a meeting online with more than a dozen participants.
The low-profile role for the majority of councillors, though, will have two effects politically.
DEMOC, the campaign for a Democratically-Elected Mayor for Croydon, will say that if councillors are not able to hold the leader of the council to account, then it would be better for that accountability to be direct from all voters across Croydon.
And while meetings are not the be-all and end-all of councillors’ work, there will also be pressure to cut their special responsibility allowances, which start at £11,463 for lowly backbenchers, but reach £31,000 for a mayor with few ceremonies to attend, through the £45,000 a year allocated to Newman’s mates in his council cabinet, right up to the £56,000 a year paid to the leader himself.
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