Fixing our bankrupt council needs a longer-term, Greener view

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Croydon is in crisis. We need to deal with the immediate priorities, find a way out of it and make sure it never happens again, says PETER UNDERWOOD (pictured right)

As in any crisis, our first priority should be to look to those who are most likely to be badly affected.

Even after the serving of the Section 114 notice last week, which brings strict restrictions on council spending, we know that the council will continue to have legal obligations to look after the safety of children and families who might be made homeless. We will get more information on what services are not going to be continued in the near future, but the key thing for all of us is to keep an eye out for things that are not being dealt with and people who may be at risk.

After the first covid lockdown, I continued delivering food parcels for the Purley Food Stop, and I know similar community projects have kept going across Croydon or have been re-started for “lockdown2”. Lots of us are also members of other groups, like residents’ associations, or linked to your children’s school, or through a faith group.

Croydon Voluntary Action has been doing a brilliant job of supporting volunteer groups through the coronavirus crisis and I know they will be continuing that kind of support, as we work out how all voluntary groups can help out in the borough’s cash crisis.

It’s important that we use those networks to make sure we spot people who are struggling and get them the support they need.

Peter Underwood’s volunteer duties delivering food parcels later saw him providing bedding plants ahead of VE Day

Some council services will be badly hit by the spending cuts that are to come. We know that looking after our green spaces is one area that the council are not obliged to continue.

As part of my role with The Conservation Volunteers, I am arranging a meeting of the Parks, Woodlands and Greenspaces Forum to bring together all volunteer groups who already help out in our green spaces. We will be exploring with the council exactly what services will continue and also discussing how the volunteer groups will operate until, hopefully, those services are restored.

As we saw during the first lockdown, and in response to the free school meals scandal, the people of Croydon are fantastic at coming together to help in a crisis. I am confident that if we show that same community spirit we will get through this initial crisis together.

So how do we get out of the crisis?

Lots of councils are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy at the moment. So if central government has any sense, they will provide more support for all councils. This will help Croydon balance the books. Unfortunately, common sense is in short supply in the current government, so we can’t rely on this. Even if they do provide support, it will be interesting to see if they give more to Conservative-run councils, as they have in the past.

There are some obvious savings to be made if you consider how much the council has wasted in Croydon in recent years.

One night’s cycle racing cost Croydon £148,000 – with no real benefit to the town

They have spent a fortune on expensive consultants, trips to overseas development booze-ups, and a series of bizarre and gimmicky events which provided little or no value to Croydon, such as the professional cycling race around the town centre. This is on top of the millions wasted on the mismanaged refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls and the apparently pointless CPO for the property around the Whitgift Shopping Centre.

Stopping more disasters like these will do no harm to Croydon.

The focus will fall on Brick by Brick, the council-owned house-builders. A report from consultants PwC into the council’s commercial operations is expected this week.

But simply flogging off all of the assets accrued by Brick by Brick would be a really stupid idea, given that the property market has just crashed and every sale would be at a loss. So far, the council has borrowed money to support Brick by Brick as a private company. The question arises: why can’t Brick by Brick borrow money against its assets to pay back the council?

Banks and financial institutions should take a longer-term view and property assets will make a return in the end, so isn’t it about time the risk was taken by the private company instead of the public authority?

Similarly with Fisher’s Folly, the council building on which the previous Conservative administration wasted £150million. While the rental market is very slack at the moment, renting out space in that building at even very low rents is likely to make more economic sense than trying to sell it off now.

There has also been talk about making savings in staff costs; the council has already terminated the contracts of all its agency staff. I completely agree with Clare Keogh, of Unite, and Louise O’Hara of my own union, Unison, that staff shouldn’t have their employment conditions taken away to pay for the mistakes of politicians and senior managers. If there do have to be cuts in salaries, then this should be borne by those who can afford it – cutting senior managers’ large salaries, not the breadline pay cheques of frontline staff.

Renting out space in Fisher’s Folly should make better economic sense than selling the council offices

We also don’t want to lose all of that frontline staff experience that will be vital as we rebuild our public services.

As a member of the Croydon Climate Crisis Commission, I have been helping develop a set of recommendations to enable the council to play its part in tackling the climate crisis. We have also been conscious of using these recommendations to help us build back better after the coronavirus. These recommendations will now become even more important in helping to build a stronger and sustainable economy in Croydon that will underpin the future financial strategy of the council.

The key point is that we need a long-term strategy for the council finances, not damaging and economically illiterate knee-jerk reactions. I’ve heard too many stories of arrogant politicians refusing to listen and just thinking they know best. Maybe it’s time they paid attention to what their staff are saying and listened to the experts.

How we stop this happening again?

I have written before about the problems with our election systems and how it gives majority power to one party even when they aren’t supported by the majority of people. This has meant that one party ends up in control of Croydon Council and they then do whatever they want, without any challenge or majority public support. This has led to poor decisions and the dreadful state we are in now.

Putting all of that power into one person’s hands would make that even worse and that is one of the reasons why I am against the idea of an elected mayor for Croydon.

In 2018, 54% of residents voted for parties other than Labour. But 59% of the 70 Town Hall seats went to Labour

Our election system not only distorts the role of the party in power but it also affects the behaviour of the party in opposition. Too often, they sit back and just make critical comments in the hope that enough votes will change next time, so they can have “their turn” in power.

Since the news of the Section 114 notice, Croydon’s Conservatives have just spent their time saying how dreadful Labour are, without offering anything constructive. They continue to ignore the fact that their own Conservative government has cut local authority funding by more than 75 per cent in the last 10 years. That has undoubtedly played a role in the disaster.

Croydon’s Tories don’t mention that the council was already £1billion in debt when they left office (the hugely over-priced Fisher’s Folly was their legacy to the borough). And they hypocritically claim that this is all a problem with the Labour Party when other councils run by Conservatives are doing exactly the same thing and are also in deep financial trouble.

I have always believed that while it is the duty of a government to properly govern, it is also the duty of the opposition to properly oppose. The opposition should have an important role in any administration. It is easy to just sit there and criticise, but a good opposition would properly scrutinise the work of the governing party, expose failings, and – most importantly – suggest sensible alternatives.

Green ticket: Peter Underwood with Green Party Mayoral candidate Sian Berry (centre) and London AssemblyMember Caroline Russell

While the governing Labour group must take responsibility for their bad decisions, it would be a lie for the Conservatives to claim that they have no responsibility for the state we are in. Apart from quibbling about a few of the purchase decisions, they completely went along with the property speculation strategy that led to this crisis. Croydon Conservatives even voted in favour of the last two council budgets.

Ideally, we would move to proportional election system which would mean that no one party has overall control. This would keep a check on decisions that are made.

It doesn’t look like we will get that any time soon. So it’s important that people remember that just swapping between red and blue doesn’t actually make things any better. If you keep voting for the same old parties, you’ll keep getting the same old politics.

We need to hear some new voices in the council chamber. We need councillors who are willing to challenge the old ways of doing things. Councillors who care about standing up for residents, not just trying to make the other parties look bad. And if you think we deserve better, then you have to vote for it.

The next elections we have will be at the London level. I’m standing as your Green Party candidate for the London Assembly in May next year, along with Sian Berry who is running to be London’s first Green Mayor. The next Croydon Council elections will be in May 2022 and we will be standing fantastic candidates to change the face of the borough for the better.

I hope you will vote for me and my fellow Greens at the coming elections so we can deliver a more constructive and effective style of politics for the good of all of us.

Read more: ‘One of the biggest casualties of council crisis is our trust’

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4 Responses to Fixing our bankrupt council needs a longer-term, Greener view

  1. Graham Bradley says:

    Too many managers, senior managers, and departmental directors have been overpaid for years and milked the system for years. The contact centre needs to be scrapped and residents should be encouraged to ring departments direct, so those responsible for getting things done take the flak and often anger from the public for their slow response to often urgent problems.

    • croydonres says:

      I would agree with Graham that the contact centre needs to be scrapped. A call to the centre invariably ends with a recorded message, after selecting the option “talk to an attendant” you find that you are number 2 in the queue, and the person in front of you has been waiting… 15 minutes.

      Anger should have no place in communication, but the existing system, which probably has an unwritten role of thinning out the number of calls by getting people to hang up before they ever get to speak to a council staff member, actually breeds anger in the hearts of normally reasonable people who only want to talk with an officer who knows all about the topic concerned, without having to go through a lengthy waiting period.

      Other classics are “Please speak the name of the person you wish to talk to” or “Please enter the number of the extension of the person you wish to talk to”.

      Both once worked occasionally, but now normally fail, and the caller finds themsleves back in a Kafkaesque loop, leading to a female voice, not posh, maybe with a nice Croydon accent, saying very slowly, and clearly, “Thank you for calling Croydon Council’s Contact Centre. We are very sorry that all our attendants are busy at present, answering enquiries from other callers… please hold to be directed to the first available attendant.”

      If that is not enough to build the frustration, a few minutes later, we get back to the
      “you are number 2 in the queue, and the person in front of you has been waiting… 15 minutes.”

      Sadly, Croydon is not alone in this. About 8 or so years ago, the last council old-fashioned switchboards in most boroughs were killed off. The hard working operators knew within seconds who to talk to.

      Sadly, the number of council staff who could field the calls had already dropped, but at least the caller could have been diverted to a voicemail machine in the department or team , and left a message within 2 minutes, and been called back.

      Now, nothing seems to work. It is a black hole of non-communication.

      Sometimes, emails are not answered. One needs to talk. With a real person.

      Some time ago I decided to try to call the Head of Comms to complain.

      I did end up speaking with a real person, in the Press Office, who probably thought I was a TV or Press media person. I got an instant response!!!

      There is something very wrong when a Croydon resident can’t get through to speak direct to a council officer, or team, but a Press person can get through in seconds.

      On a positive note, I have noticed that the council website has steadily improved, with articles in general now giving links for further information, and even the email address and phone number of the relevant officer. That is a really helpful change.

      Residents need to be treated like adults. Prompt response to calls is part of it.

      Sadly, some members of the public are beligerent and rude. But are in a minority.

      Others, reasonable people, just get angry at the abysmally slow service provided by the Contact Centre.

      I hasten to add that the staff there are helpful too, but there are clearly far too few of them.

      Croydon really does need to sort this out and aid quick and direct communication between residents and officers, not hinder it.

  2. moyagordon says:

    It would have been nice to hear more about the Green party’s policies.

  3. Ian Morris says:

    Great article. Proportional representation is the fairest system of governance, and whilst coalitions can be tricky and sluggish, they represent the people’s choices and differences on the ground. As Peter says, oppositions should be there to effectively oppose, but in the national interest, and not for selfish party and personal political gain. Greens will get my support for sure

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