WALTER CRONXITE reports on a U-turn over the council’s previous antagonistic attitude to local democracy campaigners
Hamida Ali, the Labour-controlled council’s new leader, could be about to reverse the policy of her predecessor, Tony Newman, and ignore the (self-serving) ruling of the Town Hall lawyers by opening discussions with campaigners who want a democratically elected mayor.
If she follows through with her promise to hold talks with DEMOC, Ali could begin a process which eventually gets rid of her own position as the council’s “strong leader”.
Ali has not abandoned Newman’s bombastic way of conducting council business altogether, though. She failed to mention this 180-degree change in approach over the referendum to her councillor colleagues in Croydon. Instead, they found out via a website run by a tame ex-Grauniad journalist.
DEMOC, the campaign for a directly elected mayor, presented to the council a petition with more than 20,000 signatures in September which they believed would be enough to trigger a borough-wide referendum next May on whether to change the council’s system of governance from its current “strong leader” model to one where the electorate gets to choose a mayor.
Newman, faced with this blatant challenge to his authority, ducked for protection behind covid-19. He got Town Hall lawyers to produce some flaky advice that claimed that emergency measures in the Coronavirus Act meant that council workers could not start to verify the petition’s signatures until May 5 next year – the day before any referendum might take place.
That legally dubious use of coronavirus legislation has already been challenged in the High Court by petitioners in Newham, and is now subject to a potentially costly Judicial Review.
Perhaps with that in mind, Ali has decided to junk Newman’s absolute opposition to DEMOC.
“Clearly there is an appetite among residents to have this conversation,” Ali said at the weekend.
“The role of the local authority, in the right circumstances, is to facilitate that debate. I’m grateful to the campaigners for reaching out to me and I will honour their request for a meeting.”
A promised review of the way the council is run, included in the 2018 Croydon Labour local election manifesto, was given terms of reference by Newman which excluded even considering a directly elected mayor. The review panel’s report, delivered more than a year late, offered a set of fudged recommendations in an attempt to get more of the borough’s 70 councillors involved in the decision-making, but shied away from stripping the “strong leader” – then Newman – of his executive powers.
It seems that this will have to change, whether in the face of a 20,000-signature petition or the current review of the council’s management by a Whitehall taskforce.
The damning Report in the Public Interest from auditors Grant Thornton was explicitly critical of “strong leader” Newman using a “guillotine” motion to enable him to push through without consensus or proper scrutiny the £30million purchase of the Croydon Park Hotel.
Ali now says that she wants “to make more decisions more collectively”, but when considering the directly-elected mayor, she asked: “Do you want to concentrate power even further?”
Which drew this response from a Katharine Street source today: “Where has Hamida been these past six years? You could not concentrate power any more than Newman did with his clique.
“The point of the directly elected mayor is that they would be answerable to the electorate. Newman was answerable to 40 Labour councillors, half of whom – including Hamida – he had in his pocket through patronage and allowances.”
Ali says that council officials have already met with campaigners from DEMOC, and council colleagues have welcomed this less dictatorial approach from their new leader. “She’s going to meet with them,” one said. “It doesn’t necessarily translate into a referendum but it’s entirely the right approach she’s taking and what Tony Newman should have done.”
And as another leading local Labour Party figure told Inside Croydon, “The Labour group made a fundamental error in not moving to a committee system in the recent governance review. Now they have to defend the discredited ‘strong leader’ and cabinet model when the referendum comes. It’s not the sort of record you’d want to defend.”
Ali made her comments to Dave Hill, the Grauniad’s former London correspondent, who now has a website which has been funded from, among others, PR spinners for some of the capital’s biggest developers. Hill also happens to be the brother-in-law of Croydon Council’s chair of the (lacking in) scrutiny committee, Sean Fitzsimons.
Fitzsimons, of course, had his council allowances doubled to £42,000 per year by Newman, presumably for “loyal” service.
- To read the council’s letter to DEMOC setting out their legal arguments to block having a referendum next May, click here
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