Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, on the latest potentially costly change in position performed by the cash-strapped council
The council’s Labour leadership today confirmed a massive U-turn on its previous opposition to having a referendum for a directly-elected mayor – in a move which could land the bankrupt council a bill for as much as £1million.
Inside Croydon reported last month that Labour’s 41 councillors had agreed to stage the referendum. And today, Hamida Ali, the old-new leader of the council, informed Labour Party members in Croydon that her administration will move to stage a referendum on the issue of a directly-elected mayor this autumn.
Given that the borough is supposed to be going to the polls in May for the London Assembly and Mayoral elections, that means the cash-strapped council will incur a second set of costs.
When DEMOC – the campaign for a directly-elected mayor – handed in their 20,000-signature petition last year, which should have triggered the staging of the referendum alongside the London elections on May 6, the then council leader, Tony Newman, conjured up spurious excuses about why such a public vote could not be staged.
And Newman’s henchman, the equally discredited Simon Hall, tried to scaremonger against holding a democratic vote by claiming in the Town Hall chamber by such a ballot could cost the council £1million.
DEMOC and their supporters dismissed Hall’s claim at the time, suggesting that it is a gross exaggeration. Other estimates put the cost of staging a borough-wide polling day at closer to £500,000.
Jo Negrini, when she was the council’s chief executive and returning officer, in charge of ballots in the borough, refused to answer Freedom of Information requests about the costs of elections, and the fees that she received on top of her salary for managing them.
Newman was firmly opposed to the idea of a democratically elected mayor, as it was a direct threat to his own position under what is known (without a hint of irony) as the “strong leader” model of governance. Under that system, Newman maintained his position by dispensing hundreds of thousands of pounds in council allowances to councillor colleagues, and would be duly re-appointed as Labour group leader by as few as 21 people in a secret meeting.
DEMOC has the backing of around a dozen residents’ associations and Croydon Tories, plus the Croydon South Constituency Labour Party. They hold the view that a mayor, accountable to every voter in the borough for their position, would help to check the powers of the likes of Newman, Hall and Paul Scott, the dominant council figure on planning for the past seven years.
Ali replaced Newman as Labour leader, and therefore council leader, in October. Reversing the Labour group’s position on the directly-elected mayor is a significant step to take, in the middle of a global pandemic and the council’s financial crisis.
The choice of an autumn date for the referendum is deliberate in order for Ali and her Labour administration to see out its full four-year term to May 2022: if a borough referendum votes in favour of a new elected mayor – as seems very likely – then by law an election to choose a mayor has to be held within six months. By staging the referendum in autumn 2021, the mayoral election can then be held the following May, alongside scheduled councillor elections.
Ali’s announcement was not made by the council, but in an email to Labour members in the borough.
“I wanted to let you know that at the next full meeting of Croydon Council, on Monday January 25, Labour will propose that a referendum on reforms to the council’s governance model should happen in the autumn of this year,” Ali wrote.
“In the referendum residents will choose between one of two governance options on the ballot paper. One of the options will be a directly elected mayor. The other ballot option will either be a choice between the current leader and cabinet model or a return to the committee system, the governance model used before 2002.
“We will involve local party members in taking a view on what the other option on the ballot paper should be and, crucially, what position we will take as a party during the campaign.”
In what is open to be interpreted as a swipe at her predecessor, Newman, Ali wrote, “Croydon Council is under new leadership, and we want to give our members a meaningful voice on the big decisions the council has to take.
“Holding the governance referendum this autumn will ensure there is plenty of time for Croydon residents to consider the issues involved and weigh up the merits of the different options.”
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