Town Hall leaders threaten to pull referendum on directly elected mayor if the pot-less council is unable to fix its finances. By KEN LEE
Councillors will get to vote on Monday on whether to stage a referendum on the issue of a directly elected mayor – but from the council report, it is clear that any borough-wide ballot will only be held with the utmost reluctance.
The report was slipped out belatedly, four days after the council announced that it would be staging the special meeting next Monday. It carries a grudging recommendation that a referendum should be held in the autumn, but with the warning that if the cash-strapped council is still subject to a Section 114 notice, then the exercise in democracy will be cancelled as it would not be “essential expenditure”.
According to Katherine Kerswell, the council’s interim chief executive who wrote the report, staging a stand-alone referendum could cost anything up to £650,000.
The council issued its first S114 notice in November, effectively declaring itself bankrupt. Kerswell and the council leader, Hamida Ali, are waiting on a decision from the Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on whether their recovery plan, which includes a £150million bail-out, is acceptable.
The MHCLG’s improvement panel, chaired by Tony McArdle, is tomorrow expected to deliver its first assessment of Croydon’s capacity to manage its way out of its financial crisis. That report will include the judgement of McArdle and his team on whether Croydon should be allowed the bail-out.
Without it, according to the council’s finance director and Section 151 officer, Lisa Taylor, the council won’t be able to balance its budget for this financial year, or for 2021-2022.
And that would scupper the hopes of the thousands of petitioners who have spent the past 18 months campaigning for a referendum to replace the council’s current “strong leader” model with a directly elected mayor.
According to Kerswell’s report to Monday’s meeting, “The view of the S151 officer is that should the council continue to be unable to balance its budget in the 2021-2022 financial year and a further S114 notice is therefore issued this would not be essential expenditure and these costs could not be incurred whilst a S114 notice remains in place.”
The report states, “The recommendations for the proposal is to support the aim ‘to become a much more transparent, open and honest council’.
“The recommendations detailed in this report, seek to consider a resolution to hold a referendum on the council’s governance model in Autumn 2021, so that residents can choose their preferred model for Croydon.”
The council’s preferred date for the referendum is October 7. That’s unless the London Assembly and Mayoral elections get postponed again because of coronavirus and are then held in September, in which case Croydon would stage its referendum on the same day, saving the borough between £200,000 and £300,000.
The campaign for a directly elected mayor – DEMOC – arose out of growing dissatisfaction with the frequently autocratic behaviour of Tony Newman, the discredited former leader of the council, and Paul Scott, the cabinet member for planning. With Newman viewing the 21,000-signature petition by DEMOC as a direct affront to his authority, he set out to stop it triggering the referendum, and used coronavirus as his handy excuse.
Although Newman resigned as leader four months ago, there’s more than a hint of reluctance about the council’s stance in the report, and covid-19 is used again as the convenient excuse for doing nothing.
By holding the meeting on the evening of February 8, Kerswell and Newman’s successor, Ali, are trying to dodge a legal move from Luke Hall, the government minister, to force the council to verify the petition from February 9.
Hall and the Tory government introduced an amendment to covid laws last month.
“The consequence of these new amendment regulations is that the council would have to utilise its limited resources at this difficult time to validate the petition,” the report’s author whinges.
“In essence, the minister was asking that Croydon validate these signatories in three working days, contrary to the one month that is allowed in the regulations,” said the head of a council that has been sitting on the boxes of petition documents for almost six months.
“Given the restrictions placed by the third lockdown and the health and safety concerns for officers at the present time such a request would have proved an almost impossible challenge.” Poor lambs.
“If such a request was to be achieved any potential cost saving of having a combined poll, as suggested by the Minister, would have inevitably been off-set by the additional resourcing of staff that the council would have encountered in trying to meet such an immediate request.” The council makes the extraordinary claim that it would cost £20,000 to verify the petition – pretty much £1 for every signature.
If, as is expected, Monday’s meeting agrees to stage the referendum in the autumn (Croydon’s Tory opposition have been long-term supporters of holding a referendum, so are expected to support the recommendation), and that vote is in favour of having a directly elected mayor, an election for that position would then be staged in May 2022, on the same day as the council elections.
The report does, at least, provide a glimpse of the ballot paper to be used at the referendum, including the options for those residents who will consider it a worthwhile exercise to cast a vote.
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