New leader Ali is set to confront ‘shocking’ council finances

CROYDON IN CRISIS: After winning a Labour group selection battle by 22 votes to 19 over Alisa Flemming, Hamida Ali tells her supporters ‘the hardest graft ever is about to start’. By WALTER CRONXITE, political editor

Hamida Ali: told colleagues that what is about to emerge about the council’s finances is ‘shocking’

Hamida Ali has no illusions about the task facing her as the leader of cash-strapped Croydon Council, telling Labour colleagues last night that some of the details yet to emerge about the parlous state of the borough’s finances are “shocking”.

Ali was selected as the leader of the Labour group on Croydon Council after a shambolic virtual meeting last night, winning by the votes of 22 councillors against the 19 who voted for her sole rival, Alisa Flemming. As Labour is the majority group at the Town Hall, Ali therefore becomes the council leader.

Ali takes over the cash-strapped council as it is axing services and making around 400 job losses, as it grapples with a £70million covid-related overspend this year. Tony Newman, who had been leader of the Labour group for 15 years, resigned earlier this week.

Ali is the first councillor of BAME heritage – black, Asian or minority ethnic – to become leader of Croydon Council. She is the third woman to do so.

Congratulatory tweets had been received overnight from far and wide, including from political rivals and from Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London who is, for now at least, Ali’s employer at City Hall. Ali works as a diversity officer at the London Assembly, a job she may well have to give up as a consequence of accepting a task in Croydon that many consider a poisoned chalice handed to her by her predecessor.

Many of the public shows of support from Ali’s fellow Labour councillors in Croydon seemed to betray a touch of fawning, perhaps even obsequiousness: there are cabinet jobs at stake, which come with allowances of £44,000 per year. Ali is expected to announce her new cabinet over the weekend, as she and the Labour group have their latest “away weekend” (though because of coronavirus, they are going nowhere apart from their laptops).

Hamida Ali’s message for her supporters this morning, her first as council leader

“As a councillor and campaigner, Hamida Ali has shown dedication and commitment to the Croydon community over many years,” Mayor Khan tweeted this morning.

“Looking forward to working together to improve the lives of local residents.”

The borough’s two Labour MPs both posted similar messages of congratulation and encouragement.

Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North, sent “Warmest congratulations”.

“Our whole borough will wish her every success in leading us forward through these challenging times,” said Reed, Sir Keir Starmer’s front-bench spokesperson on local government who has remained completely silent on Croydon Council’s financial crisis for the past six months.

Alison Butler: there have already been calls for her resignation – or sacking

Sarah Jones, MP for Croydon Central, gave her own endorsement when tweeting, “I have worked with Hamida for years on knife crime and other important issues and seen how great she is.

“There will be difficult times ahead but she will steer us through them.” So that’s all sorted then.

And Peter Underwood, the Green Party’s candidate for Croydon and Sutton in the London elections, offered this message: “Congratulations on your new role. Politics should be about making people’s lives better and providing help and security to those who need it most – especially in this time of crisis. You know you will have my support in making that happen.”

But Jason Perry, the recently elected leader of Croydon’s Conservative opposition, failed to have the good grace, or manners, to make any similar public comment. Nor did Chris Philp, who is Croydon South resident Ali’s own MP.

For her own part, Ali has no misapprehensions about the task awaiting her. “Thank you so much to everyone for their kind wishes and support,” she wrote.

“As the cold light of day is dawning, the hardest graft ever is about to start…”.

Choosing her own cabinet team, and stepping out of the shadow of Newman and his clique, will be among the new council leader’s first and among the more delicate of tasks. Get this wrong at the start, and Ali’s administration may never recover.

Calllton Young, the cabinet member for finance for just a week, appointed when Newman’s friend Simon Hall resigned citing “family reasons”, went in to last night’s meeting convinced that he would be sacked in Ali won: he was the only cabinet member to openly support Flemming. But then Young has bitter experience of sackings under Newman for speaking out or acting according to conscience.

Callton Young: fears a sacking after just one week in the job

There have been urgent calls from inside and outside the Town Hall for the resignations or sackings of Alison Butler and Paul Scott, the husband and wife team in charge of planning and housing in the borough, both close friends of Newman.

The surprisingly close vote among the Labour group last night perhaps shows that Ali is in charge of a divided camp. Some who attended the meeting suggested it may have been that Flemming had made wide-ranging offers of cabinet jobs or ceremonial mayoralties to anyone gullible enough to believe her.

Another suggested that Flemming’s showing “was due to Croydon North councillors backing Alisa just because she’s Croydon North, while Hamida lives in Croydon South and represents a ward in Croydon Central”.

The conduct of the meeting left much to be desired. Indeed, the internal workings of the Croydon Labour Party were deemed so important last night by some councillors that, for the first time in six years, the planning committee was abandoned to be chaired by a Conservative.

The selection meeting had been due to start at 8.15pm, to give the Labour members of the virtual planning committee time to deal with the business there, log-off and log-in to their selection meeting.

But under the chairmanship of Labour’s long-winded Chris Clark, planning business ran over time. One senior Labour councillor, Sean Fitzsimons, quite rightly wanted to remain in the planning permission to see through a pre-application presentation on a scheme in his Addiscombe West ward.

When Labour councillors on the committee one-by-one logged off to attend to their party business, Tory councillor Gareth Streeter was made pro-tem chair of planning.

Gareth Streeter: the first Tory to chair a Croydon planning meeting since 2014

The Labour group then spent 20 minutes debating whether Fitzsimons should be allowed to vote if he missed the speeches and Q&A session. It was almost 9pm before the selection meeting proper began.

That was not the end of the meeting’s problems, however, as when it came to casting votes, at least one of the older Labour councillors struggled to cope with the technology.

According to one attendee, “Both Hamida and Alisa gave good speeches and gave good responses to the questions asked without actually providing answers. There was little to choose between them on the night.”

One councillor felt that, “Hamida made a far superior presentation.”

Another said, “Hamida lavished too much praise on Newman, which could be another reason why so many Labour Group members cast their votes for Alisa.”

And looking forward, they said, “The whole Labour group knows where the departures from cabinet are needed.

Ali’s election is the political gift that will keep on giving for the Tories, at least until 2022

“I think we’ll get a very good feel for the leader Hamida’s going to be once we see her cabinet and the changes she might make.”

But however hard Labour tries to distance their new leader from the discredited regime under Newman, Ali’s close association and support for him – including voting against a no-confidence motion just three weeks ago – will provide Croydon’s Tories with a perfect campaign narrative all the way through to the next Town Hall elections in May 2022.

Ali, according to Coulsdon councillor Ian Parker today, “doesn’t represent change”.

Parker tweeted, “She’s supported Cllr Newman’s policies throughout and what a disaster they’ve been for Croydon.”

For Hamida Ali, the hardest graft ever has already begun.


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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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3 Responses to New leader Ali is set to confront ‘shocking’ council finances

  1. Lewis White says:

    Hamida has always seemed to me to be genuine, intelligent, and probably the sort of person who can get the best of those around her. This is much of what a leader needs to be. This is clearly a most difficult time for Croydon council — but if Hamida can apply intelligence, fairness and discipline to decision making in the Council, work with the officers and understand the many aspects of the council’s responsibilities and work, and suit Cabinet and specialist roles to the right people, it should all work out. And respect and listen to the Croydon public, in all its variety, and listen to the Opposition too !

    No doubt, it is going to be a steep learning curve, requiring realism, a commitment to openness, and getting value for money in council projects and services.

    One hopes that she will be supported by the vast majority of councillors, local Labour membership, and and win over the public too. I would hope that she quickly decides on full-time commitment to the role. This is a full time role.

    All the best to her.

    • Samuel Davis says:

      The Labour party can only operate to keep power whilst delivering failure.It is not about one person – that can do such damage or wonders.
      No one believes J Negrini is entirely responsible for the councils mess.She has to operate with executive and political consensus and vice versa.

      The Council and councillors have failed Croydon.

  2. Sebastian Tillinger says:

    Hamida Ali has my full support; there is no question she faces a tough challenge. I don’t think there has ever been another case of the removal of a council’s CEO, Leader and Finance Lead all in a matter of weeks.

    As many are already saying, Ali must distance herself from Newman and nurture a younger and more progressive group of councillors around her.

    She must also address the deep divisions in the borough born from Cllr Paul Scott’s influence over planning policy, his misappropriation of GLA and Government housing targets and most important of all, his exerting personal will over all matters planning including his whipping of planning committee members. It’s highly divisive, wholly unhealthy for Croydon and residents want it to end.

    The same applies to Cllr Alison Butler’s hold on housing, her inability to make the right decisions or listen to residents and an attuned instinct to coverup her mistakes. It’s just not good enough.

    None of this is working for Croydon, it was ignored by Newman and residents want these two individuals sacked from cabinet.

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