Croydon is inching ever closer to having a referendum over whether the council should be run by an elected mayor. But, as WALTER CRONXITE reports, matters are never straightforward with those in power at Fisher’s Folly
The word “emergency” is used so often at Croydon Council, it risks being devalued.
The problem with those in power at Fisher’s Folly is that an “emergency” too often appears to them to be used as a ruse to sneak through decisions which might not be quite what they seem, or (most likely with Croydon) something gets rushed through half-cock or incomplete.
So it is that there is to be an Emergency Council Meeting (yep, another one) held a week on Monday, February 8, this time to tick through the necessary paperwork for there to be a borough-wide referendum on how the council is run.
The emergency meeting announcement was sneaked out late on Friday evening, and has all the appearance of the ruling Labour group trying, again, to pull off a last-minute procedural stunt to allow them to ignore a petition, organised by a dozen residents’ associations and signed by 21,000 residents, seeking a directly-elected mayor to run the council.
At the time of announcement, the council had failed to publish its official report for the meeting, as it would be expected to do. That report would usually lay-out for approval the terms for the referendum, including the options to be presented to the electorate.
Any such referendum needs to be a binary choice between the existing governance model – which in Croydon is the laughingly described “strong leader and cabinet” model – and just one alternative.
If, by a simple majority of votes at the referendum, that alternative system is chosen, and if that alternative is to have an elected mayor, then an election for that office needs to be held within six months of the referendum.
Labour, when led by the discredited Tony Newman, used coronavirus as an excuse and tried to ignore the DEMOC campaign’s petition, claiming that they had legal advice which said that the petition could not trigger the required referendum.
More recently, with Newman gone, this stance has been relaxed somewhat, although Newman’s replacement as leader, Hamida Ali and the local Labour Party appeared confused about the precise terms and conditions for staging a referendum under The Local Authorities (Referendums) (Petitions) (England) Regulations 2011.
Earlier this month, Luke Hall, a junior government minister, intervened to issue instructions to Croydon to hold the referendum on May 6, the same day as the London Mayor and Assembly elections are supposed to take place.
But at a council meeting last Monday, a Labour motion was passed for the referendum to be held in the autumn, with any resulting mayoral election then to be staged in May 2022, alongside the scheduled local elections. By following this timetable, Croydon’s Labour councillors can console themselves that they get to cling on to what remains of their power at the Town Hall for the full term.
Whether Tory minister Hall gets to stamp his foot and insist on a May referendum might be a bit awkward: on Monday, Croydon’s Conservatives voted with Labour and in favour of the referendum being held in October.
And so we have the latest emergency meeting. According to the agenda paperwork that has been made available, Croydon’s historic referendum would be held on Thursday October 7, or some date within 28 days earlier if the GLA elections have to be postponed until September because of coronavirus (which remains a possibility).
But the loss of trust in the council’s leadership, which was absolute when Newman was in charge with his chief exec Jo Negrini, is far from repaired even under Ali and interim CEO Katherine Kerswell.
Which is why some councillors are suspicious about the reasons for there being no accompanying council report yet available.
The emergency council meeting is to be held less than six hours before the deadline set by the government for Croydon to issue its response to the petition and the requirement to stage the referendum earlier in the year.
The agenda documents, prepared by Jacqueline Harris-Baker (notably now being referred to in council documents by her former role, of borough solicitor), fail to state explicitly what the options will be at the referendum.
Under the less-than-satisfactory (half-cock) heading of “Matter for Consideration by Council – Proposal for a change in Governance Referendum (To Follow)”, Harris-Baker offers just this: “This report asks the Council to formally consider and resolve whether it wishes to hold a referendum on Thursday 7th October 2021 or on any revised date of the GLA election should this election be further postponed to a date that is within 28 days of the referendum date proposed by the Council.”
A source close to the DEMOC campaign said tonight, “The options at the referendum will have to be determined at this emergency council meeting. By law, the options have to be the status quo versus another system of governance.
“Until the council leadership lets the public and the majority of councillors have sight of its report and recommendations, it’s entirely possible with this bunch that they will try to pull a fast one and ignore the wishes of the 21,000 people who signed the petition for a directly elected mayor by putting up another, third governance system.”
Inevitably with Croydon’s hapless council, the possibility for cock-up is always far greater than the chances of a well-delivered conspiracy.
Thus, under Ali and Labour’s plan, as well as handing a bill to the bankrupt borough of twice as much as the referendum might cost if staged in May – best estimates now put the cost of a stand-alone, autumn referendum at £650,000 – Croydon is coming round to the possibility of an elected mayor when other, early-adopter councils around the country are about to abandon the system as not much cop.
Newham, in east London, is making preparations to hold a referendum to go from its current elected mayor to the committee system.
And they appear to have gone a bit lukewarm about having a directly elected mayor in Liverpool, where Joe Anderson was arrested last month on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation.
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Given the shallow pool of talent that seems to be available, I’m worried about who might end up as mayor.
Sorry Kevin – Shallow? I am impressed by your optimism. I am still working on finding any.