A senior Labour councillor has produced more red herrings than you will find in an EU fishing quota, as he has claimed that staging a referendum in May over the way the council is run won’t save a penny for cash-strapped Croydon.
The crisis-hit Labour leadership at the Town Hall was clearly caught out by yesterday’s announcement by Luke Hall, the local government minister, that it should go ahead and hold a referendum over whether Croydon should have a directly-elected mayor. Tory minister Hall told Croydon that by staging the referendum at the same time as the London Assembly election, it would provide “cost savings… for your authority”.
Hall’s decision gives the council and its politicians, plus the campaign group that has lobbied to change the borough’s governance system, little more than three months before referendum day.
The call for a directly-elected mayor was a grassroots movement, backed by a dozen residents’ association, and direct challenge to the now-discredited council leadership of Tony Newman and his numpties, including planning chief Paul Scott.
Newman, now the former council leader, spent months trying to ignore the 21,000-signature petition collected by the DEMOC campaign to trigger such a referendum. Last week, Hamida Ali, who replaced her mentor and ward colleague as council leader, changed policy and had agreed to hold a referendum in the autumn.
Local democracy laws insist that, if a borough-wide ballot votes in favour of having an elected mayor, then the local authority must elect someone to that office within six months of the referendum.
Ali and her Labour colleagues wanted an October referendum, with the mayor to be elected in May 2022, alongside the scheduled local elections.
Now, if Croydon follows the orders of Whitehall – covid restrictions permitting – it will hold the referendum in May and then potentially must vote for its first directly elected mayor six months later.
Both timetables therefore require a visit by the borough’s voters to the polling stations this autumn, with all the costs that might involve.
In arguing against even allowing the referendum to take place, Simon Hall, one of discredited Newman’s henchmen, claimed last year that any standalone ballot could cost Croydon £1million.
Less exaggerated estimates of the cost of staging a single-issue, borough-wide polling day put the costs at less than half that amount – but still money that the council can ill-afford after Hall and Newman helped to bankrupt it.
Whichever way you cut it, Croydon voters look like having three visits to the borough’s polling stations between now and May 2022.
There has been no formal response from the council or council leader to the letter from Luke Hall instructing them to stage the referendum on May 6.
But Sean Fitzsimons, the Addiscombe councillor who enjoyed six years on the allowances gravy train under Newman, today went to great lengths to criticise publicly the Government’s decision.
“It probably means additional expense of an October mayoral election,” Fitzsimons tweeted, apparently forgetting that he and his fellow Labour councillors just last week announced the additional expense of an October referendum.
In a lengthy thread on Twitter, Fitzsimons predicted that the referendum would overwhelmingly vote in favour of ridding the borough of the “strong leader” model of civic governance, which he and Newman had done so much to bring into disrepute, and choose instead a directly elected mayor.
An October election for mayor could also bring to an early end the Labour administration that has been in charge of the Town Hall since 2014.
“The cost argument is a red herring,” Fitzsimons wrote.
“There will be additional costs to running a referendum in May, plus costs spent on validating the referendum. Council will then need to budget for a possible mayoral election in October 2021, plus elections for 70 councillors in May 2022.
“So the Government thinks it is a better use of Croydon Council resources to spend time on preparing for a referendum than deal with a pandemic, which has already killed over 650 Croydon residents, including 37 last week.”
Which, as Fitzsimons well knows, is a red herring of itself. As things stand, the council is duty-bound to prepare for the London Assembly elections on May 6 already.
“The Government knows full well that a successful referendum will trigger a mayoral election in the autumn, just six months before the council elections in May 2022, when all councillors are up for election. The council proposal was to synchronise a mayoral elections with councillor elections,” Fitzsimons wrote.
After a year of covid lockdowns and restrictions, Fitzsimons and his mates in the leafleting cult formed by our local politicians are getting anxious that they have not got their usual fix from pushing thousands of glossy leaflets through residents’ letterboxes, where they usually sit unwanted and unread until dropped into the bin, destined for the incinerator.
“How are people to campaign in a referendum, either for or against, if door-knocking or street stalls are not allowed?” Fitzsimons asked.
This, too, was more than a tad disingenuous. Even as Fitzsimons was writing it last night, in party offices on Blackhorse Lane his council colleague Patsy Cummings and MP Sarah Jones were taking part in the latest Labour phone bank exercise to lobby residents for the re-election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London in May.
“Will it be a social media referendum only? Poorer people will be excluded from the debate as restricted access to internet,” Fitzsimons claimed, oblivious in 2021 to that 19th-century invention, the telephone.
Having toed the Newman party line loyally (in return for £42,000 a year in allowances) in opposing the prospect of holding a referendum, Fitzsimons’ belated desire to involve the Croydon public in any kind of “debate” does represent a remarkable transformation.
For their part, the DEMOC campaign staged an urgent Zoom meeting last night to consider the consequences of the Government decision. “No more excuses for not listening to residents,” Gerry Meredith-Smith, the chair of DEMOC, told Inside Croydon today.
“The people of Croydon should choose who runs our Town Hall, not a small number of councillors. A directly-elected mayor will be accountable to residents will listen to residents and residents can vote them out if they don’t listen.
“Surely now the council will declare residents’ petition valid?”
And Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South and an enthusiastic supporter of anything that unsettled the council’s Labour administration, claimed that a May-October referendum and mayoral election “would be cheaper” than holding the referendum in October before elections in May 2022.
“I think the Newman-Ali show has finally run out of road,” Philp said.
“And rightly so, given what they have done.”
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