Make sure your pleas to power are never ignored again

CROYDON COMMENTARY: With a little more than a month until the referendum over how we should choose future leaders of the council, MP CHRIS PHILP (pictured left) outlines why he’s supporting a change in the system

Croydon Council’s politics are broken.

If any evidence of that is needed, one has only to consider the litany of recent failures.

Croydon is the only London council to go bankrupt in more than 20 years, following disastrous failed loss-making commercial property speculation. Local services such as libraries, children’s centres, grass-cutting and swimming pools like Purley are closed or having their opening times slashed as a result.

The Westfield centre has been cancelled. The council treats its own tenants with contempt, allowing residents of Regina Road and other blocks to live in squalor and ignoring their pleas for help.

Fairfield Halls has cost more than £70million, more than double the original budget, for what turns out to be a cosmetic refurbishment. The council’s planning department grants consents like confetti, concreting over the borough and changing the character of long-established neighbourhoods while ignoring the heartfelt pleas of local people.

Not listened to: residents in Philp’s Croydon South constituency have been campaigning to save Purley Pool for years

The most destructive developer in the borough, Brick by Brick, is 100 per cent owned by the council itself, and its losses helped tip the council into bankruptcy.

How could all this have been allowed to happen?

Residents across the borough – from north to south – have been pleading with the council on these issues for years. Pleading to protect green spaces. Pleading to keep swimming pools like Purley open. Pleading to get flats like Regina Road repaired and made fit for human habitation. Pleading for Brick by Brick’s destructive activities to be ended.

And yet these pleas were all ignored. You would have thought, in a democracy and with the council leadership wanting to be re-elected, they would listen.

But they don’t listen. In fact, they treat most of the borough with contempt. The key question is a simple one: Why?

I believe that the answer lies in the electoral system and the electoral geography of the borough.

The electoral map of Croydon showing the results in 28 wards from 2018. Chris Philp says that the results in most wards are a foregone conclusion

There are 70 councillors in Croydon, representing 28 areas, or wards (each of which has one, two or, mostly, three councillors). Whichever party gets a majority of councillors chooses a “leader” with sweeping executive powers.

At the moment, Labour has 41 of the 70 councillors, and so the leader is chosen by a majority of the 41 Labour councillors – requiring potentially as few as 21 votes.

The election results in most of the 28 wards are a foregone conclusion, largely based on the borough’s north-south geography. There are only a handful of “marginal” wards where the result is in doubt. So the ruling group only has to pay attention to these seven or eight wards to hang onto power. That is why they ignore – or even treat with contempt – the majority of the borough, even areas that return Labour councillors such as South Norwood, and the residents in Regina Road.

In theory (although I hope not in practice), the same could be true if the boot were on the other political foot.

That is why we need change. Change to a system where whoever runs the council is forced to listen to every single resident across the whole borough to get elected – not just a handful in a few marginal wards. A Democratically Elected Executive Mayor would do this.

Instead of the leader being chosen behind closed doors in a secret meeting by as few as 21 councillors – many of whom are then promptly rewarded by the new “leader” with paid positions in their cabinet – the Executive Mayor would be elected by the public. Power to choose that person would be in the hands of Croydon’s 400,000 residents, not a small clique often acting out of self-interest.

When the previous leader of the council, Tony Newman, resigned in disgrace last October, Labour councillors just voted behind closed doors to replace him one of his protégés – someone who had themselves served in Newman’s cabinet and had some responsibility for the borough’s finances.

The Directly Elected Mayor would have important executive powers, rather like the Mayor of London.

They would be publicly visible and accountable. They would be chosen by the people, not by a clique. They would have to listen to every single voter across the borough to win. And they would not cost Council Tax-payers any more – they would simply replace the existing leader and exercise the same executive powers as the leader currently does.

There is a referendum on October 7 about making this change. Many people support it. The only people who don’t appear to support it are those in the same small clique who bankrupted the borough. Unsurprisingly, they don’t like the idea of proper accountability.

Let’s make a change on October 7 and make sure the people choose who runs the borough. Let’s vote in favour of a Democratically Elected Executive Mayor and make sure our pleas to those in power are never ignored again.

  • Chris Philp has been the MP  for Croydon South since 2015  and is now a junior minister at the Home Office in Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. He retained his parliamentary seat in 2019 with a majority of 12,339

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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16 Responses to Make sure your pleas to power are never ignored again

  1. Geoff James says:

    I very much like this piece as it resonates with much of what I hear on the streets of Croydon. In the interests of openness and fairness it would be good if Inside Croydon could invite Ms Ali or one of the Labour MPs to write an equally compelling piece that justifies retaining the existing “strong leader model”.

  2. I am not on Chris Philp’s side of the political divide but I agree with everything he says about the need to change the system in Croydon.

    I’m not saying this change should sweep the country but in the London Borough of Croydon it Is needed. A bit less shit is better than any more shit from Newman.

    Chris Philp highlights the impacts of Newman’s mismanagement of our borough and I would extend it to the senior executive officers who are currently on the Council’s payroll, many of whom were the political appointments of Newman and the serial underperformer, Jo Negreedy.

    There are some serious accusations being levelled at the council by residents.

    The complete indifference to the needs and concerns of residents by the Planning Department is just one example. In Planning terms and its service to the borough and its residents, Croydon Planning Department must be one of the worst in the UK. I’ve lived in 9 borough councils in my life and Croydon is off the scale in terms of its apathy, disregard, and its severing of historical connections with residents and their needs. This rupture and souring of relations was instigated by Cllr Paul Scott but the current Director of Planning seems incapable of reversing it.

    This dissatisfaction with Croydon Council needs to be dealt with by Katherine Kerswell.

    My concern is she appears to be doing nothing about it and history is going to repeat itself. We need to monitor Kerswell and if change is not happening we must get rid of her.

    • My theory, re Kerswell and the Mayor situation: she’s gaming it for another pay-off. It would not be the first time that a new elected leader has taken over at a local authority and, from Day 1, told the incumbent CEO that they don’t rate them and won’t work with them, with a hefty pay-off arranged so that the door doesn’t hit their arse on the way out.

      • That is my worry too. Kerswell is a seasoned ‘operator’ in local authorities and knows all the levers to pull in order to position herself for a huge pay-off.

        It’s just a matter of when. She clearly has no interest in this borough. If she’s still in her 6 month probationary period can’t we just kick her out now?

  3. Rod Davies says:

    Croydon is politically divided between North & South. Regardless of who is elected as mayor they will get into post using the party political system and inevitably that means they will favour their electoral base. The dysfunction under the current Labour administration is the same dysfunction that existed under the previous Conservative administration. Neither party has ever engaged enough to effect change – so why does anyone imagine that an elected mayor, a product of the same rotten political establishment, will be any different?

    Let no one forget that the plan to create a town centre composed of high density high rise buildings was the creation of the Conservative administration. Changes in Planning Law to make it easier for developers have occurred under Conservative governments. The laying-off of thousands of Council Staff from 2008/9 onward leading to massive cuts in front-line service capacity was devised and implemented under Conservative administration. The Bernard Weatherill House debacle was an entirely Conservative Party creation.

    That the successor Labour administration proved to be equally inept is almost immaterial.

    Having an all powerful elected mayor will not address the decades old dysfunction in Croydon Council’s administration unless both parties are prepared to identify and acknowledge the issues and then work together to address them. They also have to own the problems and stop endlessly blaming the other.

    As for an elected mayor not being part of a clique, that is an absurdity. As anyone who has worked in local authority knows full well, the directly elected mayor will gather around her / him like minded people who will form a clique and they will defend the mayor and themselves by throwing up barriers.

  4. P Kennedy says:

    Directly elected Mayors in boroughs or unitary authorities only really seem to work where the majority of councillors are from the same party and therefore likely to support his/her policies. There is the risk that we end up with a Labour Mayor but a Conservative majority on the Council, and this could result in an even more dysfunctional administration (if that’s even possible).

    The four London boroughs with directly elected Mayors are all have Labour supermajorities and the elected Mayors are all Labour politicians.

    A directly elected Mayor of Croydon would not have the same powers as a Metro Mayor or a Combined Authority so would still be very reliant on the support of councillors. He would still need to get the annual budget and most key plans signed off by Full Council.

    Due to the close split between the vote in Croydon the only way I could see it working well is if we managed to elect a genuinely independent candidate that is not affiliated with the political parties. However even then there is the question of how much they could achieve without the backing and power of a party behind them.

    Chris Philp clearly thinks that holding a referendum will be a good way of retaking control at the council at a time when demographic changes in the borough mean they will struggle to win wards that have previously flipped from Tory to Labour.

  5. Anthony Miller says:

    There are several fundamental problems this doesn’t solve

    1 Lack of money – Since Mrs Thatcher introduced rate capping Councils who need more money have fallen back on these dodgy PPPs as a way of concealing expenditure

    2 The Council doesn’t get as much subsidy as other areas

    3 Lack of oversight – where were the auditors? We still have Council art mysteriously dissappearing as happened to large chunks of the Riesco collection in the 80s…

    4 Once in place the superpotentate will select his minnows from the same pool of councillors

    • Yep.

      You forgot one other thing: the two candidates likely to contest the position – red and blue – will still be selected by their local parties, though their own “behind closed doors” systems, which may or may not be fixed depending on which faction happens to be “in control” at the time, and will come from the same rather limited pool of talent.

      Just look at the roster of various leaders of the party groups in Croydon in recent years: Mike Fisher, Tony Newman, Tim Pollard, Hamida Ali, Jason Perry, Tony Newman, Tim Pollard, Tony Newman, Gavin Barwell… It hardly inspires any confidence, does it?

      #ABitLessShit

  6. Chris Flynn says:

    Firstly, thanks to Mr Philp for engaging with Inside Croydon.

    But don’t our national politics works the same – vote Tory/Philp, get Boris – chosen by a few hundred MPs? Or should we have President Boris instead?

    “Power to choose that person would be in the hands of Croydon’s 400,000 residents” – but if Mr Philp has identified there is a geographic split, isn’t the same thing going to happen again – half vote A, half vote B?

    I’m not disagreeing that change is needed in Croydon, but does the whole democratic system need to be (practically permanently) changed? In Hartlepool, they literally elected a man in a monkey suit, before reverting.

    I wonder how long it will take for dissatisfication for a mayor to set in – I wonder if there will then be a ‘CRexit’ between north and south?

    I would like to hear more about a committee system (which hasn’t been mentioned in this article or any comments to date); what would be the mechanics for getting this ‘3rd option’ introduced?

    • >>>
      I wonder how long it will take for dissatisfaction for a mayor to set in – I wonder if there will then be a ‘CRexit’ between north and south?
      <<< Ten years. Because of legislation, after next month's referendum, there can be no other change - reverting to the strong leader system, another go at bringing in a mayor, or the option of switching to a committee system - until 2031 at the earliest. However crap the result might be. #ABitLessShit

      • Chris Flynn says:

        Thanks. So we could potentially have a functional ‘strong leader’ council in the next elections, or be lumbered with a series of personality mayors for the next 10 years?

  7. Perhaps it’s time to scrap Croydon Council. Let the north of the borough join Lambeth and the south can go to Tandridge.

  8. Totally right Kevin. The map makes the argument clear. The problem has always been the same. Labour runs Croydon and (largely) shafts the (largely) Tory voting south of the borough. The Conservatives run Croydon, and resources and decisions all flow the other way. The fundamental issue is two completely demographically, geographically separate areas, stitched together by the Greater London Act of 1974, like a kind of suburban Czechoslovakia. Epsom and Ewell managed to stay in Surrey. Purley, Coulsdon, and surrounding areas, tried to, but failed and were sucked, against their will, into Greater London. All residents of the borough, north and south, have lived with the political, social, and economic consequences ever since. The answer, obviously, is to split the council and let each half of the borough get on with running their own affairs in their own interests. But in an age where the Government is intent on creating fewer, much larger, less local councils, as opposed to more, better, more locally accountable and representative councils, this sadly isn’t going to happen.

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