TOWN HALL SKETCH: The borough is in the middle of two crises – the coronavirus pandemic and its own financial mess. Yet last night saw the first full meeting of Croydon Council in almost three months, an ’emergency’ meeting only arranged after the Tory opposition raised a motion of no confidence in Labour leader Tony Newman. WALTER CRONXITE logged in together with the civil servants from the Ministry…
It would seem that 40 of the borough’s 41 Labour councillors have absolute faith in the ability of Tony Newman and Simon Hall to lead the borough through the financial chaos that between them they did so much to create.
At least that’s what we are led to believe after the roll call of names last night on the emergency motion of no confidence raised by Jason Perry, Croydon Tories’ new leader. Only one Labour councillor did not vote against the Conservative motion, and they were a victim of the outage in broadband service from Virgin Media suffered across the borough over the course of the weekend, a democratic casualty of virtual meetings in our covid age.
But as each Labour councillor, in turn, had their name called to vote on the final motion of the three-hour meeting, often it was the sound of defeat in their voice that betrayed their true feelings as they duly toed the party line. After all, at least 25 of them receive increased allowances of some kind on Newman’s say so.
“Tony’s saved his own skin this time,” a Katharine Street source said as they watched this parade of party duty. “But it’ll be electoral disaster for the Labour Party in 18 months’ time.
“How many of those councillors voting tonight, even those on special allowances, will decide not to bother standing again because of what’s gone on?”
Undoubtedly, Newman will publically claim the outcome of last night’s vote as a total vindication for his leadership.
But Newman and his clique of acolytes and incompetents are no longer in charge of this borough.
Having gone cap-in-hand to Whitehall to seek permission to use more than £20million of capital funds to plug the hole in his council’s revenue budget, it is the mandarins from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government who are calling the shots now.
That was made plain 45 minutes before the start of the meeting when Labour’s counter-motion was hastily withdrawn. The stubborn and aggressive tone of Newman’s “nuffink to do with me, guv” motion would not have impressed those from the MHCLG who will have been watching proceedings.
In any case, after discussion of the council’s emergency budget and the Tory no-confidence motion, the Labour motion, which wanted to blame the government, austerity, local demographics and covid for the “in excess of £70million” shortfall in the borough’s finances, will have only meant going over the same ground for a third time.
And when it comes down to it, Croydon Conservatives just don’t have the numbers, and the discontents within the Town Hall Labour group don’t have the fortitude to make a stand.
The disdain in which the Tory leadership is held by those on the (virtual) other side of the chamber was made plain very early on.
Maddie Henson is the Newman loyalist (she’s very keen to get her husband put forward as a council candidate in a safe Labour ward) who chairs these affairs as (ceremonial) Mayor. She opened proceedings by congratulating Perry on his promotion to Conservative group leader.
“I’m sure you’ll be as effective an opposition leader as your predecessors,” Henson said, damning with faint praise.
Perry has made one immediate, important adjustment to Tory policy. After three years in which, as the rhetoric goes, councillors wanted “to set aside party politics” and the Tories under Tim Pollard opted not to oppose the Labour-set borough budgets, under Perry the Conservatives last night voted against Newman and Simon Hall’s emergency budget.
They lost, of course. But Hall and Newman will no longer be able to jab back at Perry, Jason Cummings and Mario Creatura that they had supported the measures.
This will be Labour’s emergency package, and only Labour’s. If it fails, it will be Newman’s failure. Another one.
Given the increasingly grim picture painted in her presentation by council officer Taylor, there can be little outright confidence that Croydon’s rescue package will be accepted.
Newman had stressed from the outset how he, now, wanted “to set party politics aside… The public expect a better level of debate”, he said, for once getting it right.
In this virtual meeting format, events often descended into the Pythonesque, as nearly 70 councillors murmured their assent to various items of routine business. This was only emphasised as Newman made his opening address and was silenced by a failure of the technology.
“Did the money run out on the meter?” one wag intervened, causing Mayor Henson to adopt her “I’m very cross” face.
When Newman got himself reconnected, he stressed the emergency nature of the situation – without ever once explaining why, amid such emergencies, he and his colleagues had failed to call a meeting of full council since July.
The rationale of the Conservative argument through the evening was that as Newman and Hall had got Croydon into the current financial mess, they really ought not to be trusted with the task of digging the council out of their hole.
“Now they say trust us?” one Tory councillor remarked. “They must think we are crazy.”
Jeet Bains, who won his Addiscombe East ward seat from Labour in 2018, was first sent in to bat to criticise Hall’s record of financial management, including the bankrupt Croydon Park Hotel (bought over the asking price for £30million), the failing Colonnades centre (£54million) and the loss-making Brick by Brick (£260million, at least).
Drawing attention to Hall’s professional qualifications as an accountant, Bains questioned why Hall had allowed finance director Lisa Taylor to make the presentation on the emergency budget. “You hide behind officers,” Bains said. “You’ve gambled with Croydon’s future. You’re behaving like a bookie… You should be called a turf accountant!”
Such rhetorical flourishes simply fall flat in virtual meetings. So while Hall appeared crest-fallen, what he described as a “disgraceful personal attack” was not going to bring about his resignation. Not this week, at least.
Hall had arrived at the meeting knowing that the growing and increasingly influential residents’ association in New Addington, which he represents together with three other Labour councillors, had that night issued a statement calling on councillors – including Hall – to vote for a motion that expressed no confidence in… err… Hall. The cheeky gesture is a clear shot across the bows, and could indicate how vulnerable Hall and his councillor colleagues in the New Addington wards could be come the local elections in 2022.
Hall claimed it was “unfortunate” that the Croydon Park Hotel had gone into administration in June, even though the administrators had made it clear in their official that it was the hotel’s landlords – the council – who had forced it out of business by refusing to accept reduced rents during the coronavirus lockdown.
Newman and Hall were to be subject to wave after wave of criticism from a carefully orchestrated opposition. Mario Creatura, who was recently demoted to Tory whip in Perry’s shadow cabinet reshuffle, appealed to “the many talented Labour councillors” to do the sort of thing he would never do himself, and vote against the party whip.
Apparently privy to some grand league table of badly-run councils held by Whitehall, Creatura claimed that Croydon was now rated among the worst of all 343 local authorities in the country. “You’ve failed to meet budget targets every year since 2014,” Theresa May’s former Twitter monitor said. “You’re incapable of delivering your budget.”
Newman came over all nostalgic for the years under discredited Tory council leader Mike Fisher, when both parties came together to seek a fair funding settlement for Croydon. When being accused of not taking responsibility for anything, Newman began to respond and then again started to move his mouth with nothing coming out. When his volume was restored, a flustered Newman said, “Someone’s playing games with the technology somewhere,” as if to prove Councillor Margaret Bird’s point about his never taking responsibility.
Jason Cummings, the Tory deputy leader, while having all the presence of an undertaker, does appear a more confident performer than many when he is given a prepared script, a laptop and a reliable broadband connection.
In the debate on the emergency budget, he accused the council of “asset stripping” the borough with its undervalue sales of property to Brick by Brick, including some plots handed over for as little as £1 each. Later, it was also suggested that loss-making Brick by Brick had been allowed to skip some of its interest repayments on its loans to the council.
“This did not need to happen,” Cummings said. “It did not need to be this bad.”
There was some sense that Cummings was playing to a particular audience – the watching civil servants from MHCLG. “There’s chaos in the ranks,” he said of Labour. “They withdrew a motion 45 minutes before the meeting because they didn’t want MHCLG to see them not taking responsibility.
“As long as Councillors Newman and Hall are in charge, we have no confidence in their ability to deliver the budget.”
But the budget was passed courtesy of Labour’s majority of councillors, and so the meeting moved on to discuss the no-confidence motion, when all the same arguments were aired once more.
Newman was “churlish and arrogant”, according to Perry who claimed that Richard Simpson, the previous council exec in charge of finances, had quit the council in late 2018 when the Labour leadership refused to listen to his warnings of the impending disaster.
Under Newman, Perry said, Croydon had the “look and feel of a town in decline” (Perry does not appear to have got the memo to advise him that, since 1965, Croydon is a London borough, and that it is not some provincial town in the home counties).
Here, at least, as the parties rotated through alternative speakers, so spectators were spared the misery of another five minutes of Newman humming and harring his way through a set of half-baked clichés (“a smaller financial envelope” is the latest verbal crutch he has come to use repeatedly to disguise his true ignorance of matters. He could simply state that, under him, the council has less money).
Instead, we were subjected to another five minutes of the terminally dull Alison Butler humming and harring her way through the same script.
Interventions from the under-utilised Jerry Fitzpatrick, who has the oratory and intelligence you’d expect from someone who’s spent a career as a legal advocate, and from Chris Clark and Janet Campbell showed that Labour does indeed have some more thoughtful councillors in its ranks – it is just that Newman tends to prefer to surround himself with others less capable of representing a challenge to his leadership.
So while Lynne Hale, the second of the Tories’ deputy leaders, called for Newman to “Apologise to the people of Croydon”, when it came to the vote a few minutes later, it was Labour backbenchers who let Newman off the hook.
It was decided by what they call “a poll vote”, which makes it impossible for anyone to quietly and anonymously vote against the party line, or even take a high-minded abstention. So as a council official called the councillors’ names, one by one, alphabetically, the outcome was inevitable: 40-28, just as the voting had been on the budget.
Where this leaves Croydon Council if the MHCLG were not sufficiently impressed by the unapologetic Newman and unresponsible Hall, Lisa Taylor had made clear with one of her slides in her increasingly grim presentation at the start of the evening.
“We want to be on that side of the slide,” Taylor said, indicating a column headed “Croydon Council control”.
The alternative? Another column, this time headlined: “MHCLG control”.
We should find out in November which column Croydon is heading for.
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