‘We can’t do business as usual’ says rookie councillor looking to make an impression, writes KEN LEE, our Town Hall reporter
Leila Ben-Hassel, a Croydon councillor only since March 2019, last night announced herself as a fourth contender to become deputy leader of the council.
She joins Alisa Flemming, Manju Shahul-Hammed and Stuart King in a vote among the borough’s 41 Labour councillors to be held tomorrow evening. The election arose after Alison Butler resigned as deputy leader earlier this week.
Ben-Hassel is the only candidate in the election who was not a cabinet member in the increasingly discredited administration of Butler and Tony Newman, something that the Norbury and Pollards Hill ward councillor stresses sets her apart from her rivals.
“We cannot afford to do business as usual,” Ben-Hassel wrote. “Our residents and members deserve better.”
As a newcomer to Croydon politics, Ben-Hassel is relatively untainted by the calamitous mismanagement of the old regime that is now subject to an urgent review by Whitehall. Indeed, on the occasions when she has been asked to chair sessions of the scrutiny committee, her independence of approach and challenging style of questioning has been welcomed by observers and caused discomfort to some of her longer-established council colleagues.
She was elected 18 months ago at a ward by-election following the death of long-standing council figure Maggie Mansell. Ben-Hassel has 16 years experience as a project manager working in public realm planning for the City of London Corporation. She knows how local authorities work from the inside.
She says that she is putting herself forward “not just to be your next deputy leader, but to transform the role itself”.
Referring to the report from auditors Grant Thornton published last Friday, Ben-Hassel wrote: “The Report in the Public Interest has opened the eyes of [the Labour] group to the stark reality that in the next few weeks we will, at best, remain in control of the administration with very limited ability to deliver more than statutory services and, at worst, face government intervention following a Section 114 notice.”
“Like many of you, this breaks my heart and the extent of the issues and challenges raised is far beyond than what most of us imagined.
“Many of us who stood for election in recent years did so with the ambition and belief that we could, and would, make a difference. I feel newer councillors have been robbed of that opportunity and although I accept that covid and austerity cuts have been major contributing factors, the auditors’ reports show that we already faced severe challenges.”
Ben-Hassel says that the current reviews of the council are an “opportunity to completely rethink the way we do things”, and leave “behind the days of complacency, lack of constructive challenge and avoidance of difficult decisions”.
Knowing that her three rivals for deputy leader have all already been given cabinet positions under new leader Hamida Ali, Ben-Hassel’s pitch is that Flemming, Shahul-Hameed and King should not be distracted from their tasks by the (less-than-onerous) duties of being deputy leader. “Now more than ever, we need our cabinet members to be totally focused on their portfolios and not stretched between two roles,” she wrote.
“This new approach will also signal strongly to our residents that we are taking these challenges seriously and bringing in a fresh pair of eyes to broaden the range of voices around the table.”
In an appeal that was full of implicit criticism of the council under Newman and his numpties, Ben-Hassel offers herself as a “bridge” between the previous by-passed backbenchers and the leadership. “This would ensure that we harness the breadth of talent and experience we have on our back benches, and that our [party] members feel listened to.
“If we take anything from the current situation, it must be that plurality of voices and inclusive, collaborative working has to become a key part of our culture. We are stronger together.”
Unusually, Ben-Hassel also offers to forego collecting the full special responsibility allowance as deputy leader, “in line with my values of doing the role as a public service”.
As a Katharine Street source said this afternoon, “The last time a candidate for election to the council offered to set that kind of danngerous precedent, Tony Newman stepped in and had them removed from the nomination process.
“If Leila does well in tomorrow night’s vote, it will be an important break with the Newman past.”
Read more: Newman won’t say sorry, even to colleagues
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