CROYDON IN CRISIS: The borough’s senior Labour councillors continue to appear to be in power, but not in control. Just days after a report on this website about attempts to charge organisers of kids’ play schemes hundreds of pounds, a cabinet member has been forced to issue a hurried correction.
STEVEN DOWNES reports
Just days after Inside Croydon carried an impassioned account of how the cash-strapped council wanted to charge the borough’s volunteers and parents £195 (plus VAT, of course) for the simple privilege of allowing their children to play in the street, the council cabinet member has been forced to issue a public statement which promises to abandon the ill-considered move.
A residents’ petition has more than doubled its number of signatures since Thursday’s article by Emma Hope-Fitch, the organiser of the award-winning play street in Love Lane in South Norwood, which explained how after the lockdown hiatus, she and her fellow play street volunteers had received demands for money from Croydon Council if they were to resume their activities for their neighbourhood’s youngsters.
This morning, Muhammad Ali, the Labour council’s cabinet member responsible, issued a tweet to pledge that there would not be any charges for play streets after all.
“We have not charged anyone applying to hold a play street event,” the councillor wrote, more than a tad disingenuously, “and the council will continue to support these applications without any charges.”
The only reason the councillor is able to state that Croydon “have not charged anyone” is because the play street organisers refused and quickly got organised to oppose the charges.
But correspondence seen by Inside Croydon from council officials to resident volunteers is absolutely clear that any play street scheme wishing to resume after lockdown was going to have to stump up £234 (including VAT) so that their kids could play in the streets.
Not for the first time, council letters demonstrate that some officials are making decisions over the running of the borough without seeking any policy approval – with elected councillors having to play catch-up over the mess created by the routine mismanagement at Fisher’s Folly.
One email, sent to a play street organiser in Thornton Heath, made it quite clear that charges were going to be made.
“Thank you for your emails. I apologise for the delay in reply, which occurred as I was awaiting a final decision regarding charging for play streets,” the official stated, without revealing who was making such a final decision.
“I have now received that information and can confirm that the charge for play street Traffic Orders will be £195+VAT (£234.00), which is the same charge we apply to charities which request a Traffic Order for an event.”
The official’s email then named two Thornton Heath councillors who, it seemed, rather than objecting to the charges being levied, came up with a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme by offering a couple hundred quid out of their council-funded ward budgets to cover the play street fees.
The council official’s email confirms that there is no legal requirement for Croydon to publicise the Traffic Orders – through over-priced ads in little-read free papers – but, “as a matter of good practice to publicise the restrictions, we always place one advert in the local press before making an event-related Traffic Order under Section 16a of the Road Traffic Act 1984,” they said.
“In order to proceed with your application, I need to know that you still wish to go ahead in the light of the charge being applied. Once you confirm this, I will then need to make an application for approval from the [Department for Transport] as the play street covers more than three dates, and this is what the regulations require.”
Another piece of council correspondence, from Clare Harris, a “senior traffic orders engineer” on the sixth floor of Fisher’s Folly, in the “Place Department”, after issuing an apology for failing to reply to the resident’s previous emails (note: emails, plural), euphemistically linked the play street charges to “the council’s financial situation”.
With around 10 play streets established around the borough, Croydon’s cash-strapped council might expect to raise £2,340 per year for charging kids to play close to their homes. The council’s debts are £1.5billion. The council’s chief executive is paid £3,701per week.
For her part, Hope-Fitch today welcomed the council U-turn. But the officials’ efforts to squeeze community volunteers for a few bob has not been without consequences.
“I’m very happy with this,” Hope-Fitch said, “however a volunteer stopped their application after being informed of the £234 charge. It had a direct and immediate negative impact on play streets.”
With groups preparing for the easing of lockdown and the first play street sessions since the start of the pandemic in March last year, charity Play London is planning some special events over the school holidays.
Hope-Fitch said, “It would be great if their application could now be fast-tracked and we can get on with Summer Of Play.”
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