A costly legal battle is expected, as council leader looks to block the democratic will of the people. STEVEN DOWNES reports
After 18 months of meetings and door-knocking, a campaign group led by seven residents’ associations has today handed in the product of their work – a 21,000-signature petition which, they are confident, should be enough to see Croydon hold a borough-wide referendum next spring to decide if the council should be led by a democratically elected mayor.
The campaigners want the referendum to be held on May 6, the same day as the London Mayoral and Assembly elections.
In correspondence with the council, they say, “The current council’s action in response to the signatures on this petition, secured despite lost months from the covid lockdown, will be an acid test of their approach to democracy and accountability. Will they listen to the will of the people and go ahead with a referendum on May 6 next year?
“Or will Councillor Newman seek to cling on to power and avoid accountability? Introducing better governance for Croydon is more important than ever now.”
The petitioners, including Tory MP Chris Philp and officials from the Croydon South Constituency Labour Party, met on the steps of the Town Hall knowing that they had gathered 50 per cent more signatures than is required by law to trigger such a referendum.
But they also knew that their campaign could yet be in for months of legal wrangling, as the leader of the Labour-run council, Tony Newman, in fear of the loss of his £53,000 per year sinecure, stubbornly hides behind coronavirus to claim that no such petition can be submitted before next year.
At present, the council operates what’s known as a “Strong Leader Model” (try not to laugh), with a council leader and cabinet of just 10 senior councillors making all the key decisions.
The campaigners say, “Crucially, a mayor will be elected directly by the 275,000 voters across Croydon, while under the current system, the council leader is chosen by councillors of the majority party rather than by the voters.”
The Local Authorities (Referendums) (Petitions) (England) Regulations 2011 allow the public in a local authority area to trigger a referendum to move to a directly elected mayor if they secure the signatures of more than 5 per cent of electors in the area – in Croydon’s case, that now stands at 13,788.
Since the Local Government Act was passed in 2000, 24 local authorities in England have moved to the directly elected mayor system. As well as Sadiq Khan in London, these also include the cities of Bristol and Liverpool, and London boroughs Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets – all Labour-controlled councils.
The handover of DEMOC’s petition was delayed by the covid-19 lockdown, which also saw signature-collecting suspended for three months.
Attending the formal handover this evening were representatives from the founding residents’ associations: Kenley and District, Addington Village, East Coulsdon, Croham Valley, Hartley and District, Purley and Woodcote, Sanderstead, and from the Whitgift Estate.
Other residents’ associations are expected to join forces in the coming weeks, as the campaign shifts from triggering the referendum to put forward the argument for supporting a directly elected mayor.
This being 2020, the 20,978 hard copy signatures on the petition – so many that they needed to be carried into the Town Hall in boxes, on trolleys – also came with a memory stick and Excel spreadsheets that cross-referenced every signatory with the electoral roll, presented for ease of reference of council officials.
In an accompanying letter sent to the council’s head of electoral services, the chair of the campaign committee, Gerry Meredith-Smith, wrote, “We have… removed duplicates electronically from the tally and removed those signatures more than a year old. Having disregarded signatures that are not on the Croydon electoral roll and removed signatures which are duplicates or out of date, we have 17,114 valid signatures that are both on the Croydon electoral roll and also unique and in date.
“We are submitting these valid signatures to you today. The 17,114 valid signatures substantially exceed the threshold of 13,788 signatures required to trigger a referendum for a Directly Elected Executive Mayor of Croydon.”
Meredith-Smith also laid out, at considerable length, DEMOC’s legal arguments, based on counsel’s advice, why the referendum should go ahead next May.
In a statement issued this afternoon, DEMOC said, “There are many good reasons why the people in Croydon want a directly elected mayor. Underlying all of them is the belief that the current council system doesn’t work for residents – whoever is in power, half the borough is ignored because of Croydon’s political landscape where the north votes Labour and the south votes Conservative. The council doesn’t listen and often doesn’t seem to care what large parts of the community think.”
And Jo Milligan, the vice-chair of Croydon South CLP, said, “This campaign is about what is best for democracy and best for Croydon – not which political party is in charge. Residents’ associations, members of all political parties and of none, have come together to change the way local government in Croydon works – to boost accountability.
“We want to change the system so that whichever political party the mayor comes from, they have to listen to people right across the borough from Norbury to Coulsdon, New Addington to Waddon.”
But Meredith-Smith is prepared for the council, and Newman, to try to stall and frustrate the call for a referendum. “Will they hide behind covid legislation, using it as an excuse to ignore what a large number of the people of Croydon now demand?” he said.
“Will they prioritise holding on to their current positions and their council allowances for a few more months, rather than giving the people the chance of a better system and a better future for our town?”
The campaign team say that they are prepared to crowdfund for a Judicial Review at the High Court if necessary to secure the referendum.
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