CROYDON IN CRISIS: So many staff have been made redundant at Fisher’s Folly that they now don’t have time even to draft meeting minutes of the Town Hall’s £1.5bn pension fund. By STEVEN DOWNES
When the council’s planning committee convened last Thursday evening, it was the first time it had met since April 22.
The planning committee, often dull and often controversial, usually meets every second Thursday.
With its agenda bulging with applications from profit-hungry developers eager to run rings around the sometimes confused or gullible councillors, often ably assisted by council officials’ dodgy reports and helpful interruptions from the chair or certain developer-friendly members of the committee, planning meetings often dragged on for nearly five hours.
But in the past 10 weeks – the first weeks of the “post-Paul Scott era” of Croydon planning – there had not been a single meeting of the committee. Not one residents’association objection had been patronised by officers or dismissed by the committee.
And for nearly three months, not a single application had been brought before the committee and granted permission.
The council’s failure to conduct its planning business properly, efficiently, even routinely, has prompted urgent questions from the Town Hall’s Tory opposition councillors.
But it is not only as the local planning authority that Croydon Council has been creaking along, barely in first gear.
In April, the council postponed or cancelled four meetings of its various committees and panels.
In May, six such meetings had to be cancelled or postponed.
Last month, June 2021, eight scheduled pieces of council business failed to take place at the appointed time.
Katharine Street sources suggest that few, if any, of the cancellations or postponements were to do with coronavirus and the difficulties of staging meetings under lockdown conditions. The council, like most other local authorities around the country, has a year’s worth of experience of handling remote meetings.
Council insiders suggest that the basic function of organising meetings is proving too great a task for the much-reduced staff.
Routine meetings of things such as the traffic management advisory committee, tenant and leaseholder panel and the health and wellbeing board have all been cancelled or postponed. Notoriously, the health and wellbeing panel, chaired by Newman numpty Louisa Woodley, went more than 10 months in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic without holding a meeting.
Often, members of the public who are invited to attend such meetings are advised of the cancellation without any reason offered.
Last month, at a meeting of the committee which oversees the management of the council’s £1.5billion pension fund, members were basically told that staff are so over-stretched that they did not have the time to prepare the latest set of meeting minutes.
There was genuine concern among committee members, who include co-opted residents, that such a failure to record properly the deliberations and decisions could place the council, and the individual committee members, in breach of strict financial regulations.
The operation of the council’s many committees falls to the Democratic Services department in Fisher’s Folly. Democratic Services’ administrative role is far from being a “front-line service”. Its staff have never wielded a street-sweeping broom in anger nor had to deliver meals on wheels to a vulnerable pensioner.
Thus, when Jo “Negreedy” Negrini and later Katherine Kerswell and her very well-paid cohort of exec directors were scouting around for where to make more than 600 staff redundant, Democratic Services was probably one of the easier areas to wield an axe.
The growing concerns surrounding the failure to hold any planning committees prompted Tory councillor Gareth Streeter to issue an open letter, publicly challenging Labour’s Chris “Thirsty” Clark, the committee chair, and Olly “Shit Show” Lewis, who is now the cabinet member responsible for planning (yes, things really are that desperate).
Streeter described “a lack of transparency around the way planning decisions are currently being made”. For even though the committee has not been meeting, it has been possible for council staff in the planning department to grant permission to some schemes.
“Public confidence in Croydon Council has collapsed,” Streeter declared.
“Because of the decision to cancel recent meetings of the planning committee, we worry that forthcoming meetings will be overloaded with items for decision. Understandably, residents will fear that agendas are deliberately being crowded to squeeze out time for robust debate.”
Streeter, a member of the planning committee, claimed that such is the demands on the agenda, there needs to be more meetings, not fewer. Before the 10-week hiatus, committee members were being pressured to not raise questions or scrutinise applications because of the time pressures. He claims that some residents had been logged in to meetings for nearly six hours, only for the item they had waited for to be dropped at the last minute because the poorly- and eccentrically-chaired meeting had over-run.
According to Streeter, outside the committee meetings, other serious mistakes are being made. A residents’ association correctly referred an application to be heard by the committee, only to find it was decided by officers as delegated business. “This is a breach of the council’s constitution,” Streeter says.
The council is also making itself vulnerable to possible expensive planning inspector action, as developers kept waiting for a decision are able to appeal against the council’s slowed decision-making process.
The council executive director over-seeing this latest shambles is Heather Cheesbrough, who was supposed to be leaving Croydon at the turn of the year, only to withdraw her resignation when the circumstances changed at another London council where she was supposed to be moving.
According to Streeter, “A meeting of the planning committee should not exceed three hours or try and discuss more than four items.”
There has been a convention at the council to extend meetings long into the night if there is an excess of items to discuss. “From now on, Conservative members of the committee will vote against suspending the guillotine,” Streeter warned.
“We are committed to discouraging items being nodded through without due scrutiny. But we will support a larger number of shorter meetings. Planning committee tends to meet every other Thursday. There is no reason that it can’t meet every week.”
The only problem with that is whether there are sufficient council staff to manage the requirements of weekly planning meetings.
Read more: Council planning decisions ‘open to corruption’, says research
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