REFERENDUM COUNTDOWN: Last week, Labour’s Leila Ben-Hassel offered her reasons for opposing a change in the way the council is governed. With the borough-wide referendum being staged tomorrow, resident – and voter – IAN KIERANS questions the councillor’s arguments
Councillor Leila Ben-Hassel, in her article “Council governance is poor due to lack of competent cultures“, claimed that the 21,000 people who signed the petition which triggered a referendum on the change to a directly elected mayor may have been misled by Tories from the south of Croydon. The campaigners may have used over-development and planning issues as a hook.
Perhaps they did, but they did so no more than every other political campaign run by the parties, including Labour.
Most of the people that I know, from across all of Croydon and who signed that petition, were not misled. In fact, many signed it as Labour supporters, because directly elected mayors are a Labour Party policy.
Where Croydon residents really were misled, and very badly misled, was over the state of the council’s finances and the actions of Tony Newman, the former leader of the council.
It is 12 months ago this week since Newman and his finance chief, Simon Hall, resigned their positions.
Under Newman and Hall, the people of Croydon were misled into believing that contractors Axis were providing a good service in maintaining and repairing council property and council homes, like the flats on Regina Road in South Norwood that have seen Croydon become the subject of a national scandal.
We have also been misled into thinking that Veolia, the council’s waste contractors, are capable of providing a satisfactory and reliable bins collection service, a belief that an increasing number of us are disabused of weekly.
In the last few years, existing residents have been subjected to rampant over-development, often in wards that are already overcrowded and with scarce facilities. Were we really misled by something that we see with our own eyes every day?
Yes, tomorrow’s vote has been something the Tories have wanted. Maybe it’s their hope to win back control of the council. After all, under their “strong leader”, Mike Fisher, they made their own £1billion debt contribution to the borough’s financial mess.
Perhaps an election for mayor next May will be won by a Labour candidate? Perhaps, bearing in mind what has gone on, it could be won by an independent, along the lines of Martin Bell’s anti-sleaze campaign in Cheshire in the late 1990s? That would be no bad thing, as we really need to have some openness, honesty and fairness towards our residents that has been lacking for some time.
Perhaps there is an honest Labour figure, untainted by what has occurred that would like to stand and bring us out of this mess?
What Councillor Ben-Hassel and the borough’s other politicians should do is stop trying to make it sound as if they are conducting their mayoral referendum campaign in the interests of the people of Croydon. They are not.
They wish to preserve their powerbase. This may be a necessity in first-past-the-post politics for national government, but it is not necessary today in local administration.
Personally, I find that most in the Croydon Labour group are very good people doing a difficult job in trying circumstances, and they get a lot of flak for things that are usually beyond their control.
And as everyone else does, they also make mistakes. It is surely not much different in other parties.
I had the pleasure of meeting the late MP Gwyneth Dunwoody on some transport issues a few times and her attitude to cross-party working was a model in getting things done and an example I have strived to follow.
Perhaps this is a time for consensus in Croydon and getting things done?
But to do this and move forward, there has to be trust. Trust between residents and the council. Trust between councillors and their leaders, trust between business, including property developers, and the council.
Most importantly, there needs to be a trust that when things go wrong, they will not be covered up or hidden or difficult decisions avoided.
Perhaps, more than anything else, that is what is currently missing: trust.
That the governance of the council has been poor is an understatement. It is still poor. Councillor Ben-Hassel was right to say that this is mostly down to the lack of competent corporate management and poor political and organisational culture of both the council and the strong leader regimes we have had.
An elected mayor can bring reconciliation and togetherness, working with all parties, based on competence and experience. This could really be an opportunity for a collaborative form of decision-making, but only if councillors and their parties wish to work for the people that they are supposed to represent, and not just in the interest of their party.
I did find strange Councillor Ben-Hassel’s comment that, “Overly focusing on the systems also distracts from other processes which are important aspects of local democracy.’’
Perhaps a bit more focus on systems, focus on controls, and on risks, and on business planning, and indeed on the governance of the council might have prevented or at least reduced considerably the debt run up by Fisher and Newman, and might have allowed for the council to have enough reserves to ride out this pandemic or other disasters.
Party politics appears to be just that in Croydon. Appointing those you trust and have supported you is age-old and a recognised method, but really, let’s have some individuals that actually can do a good job.
For all the doubts raised about how a mayoral system won’t work, I think Ken Livingstone, I think Andy Burnham and I think Sadiq Khan. Though when I think back to Boris Johnson’s time as London Mayor, I realise that there has to be an exception to the rule.
Two terms for a mayor, elected next May, to clean up the borough and get it back on its feet would be a tough task, and would take 10 years – by which time we could consider a shift back to the old committee system. It took the two parties 10 years to dump the borough in the sewer, with a lot of help from central government, so it might just take that long to fix the issues.
Like all politicians, Councillor Ben Hassel, you may make a few mistakes, but I get the feeling you would do so honestly and work to rectify them where it was possible. That is a good way to go forward.
But can I suggest less anti-Tory rhetoric? They do have their faults perhaps, but many are caring and try to do well also.
Read more: Reed goes video ga-ga as Labour campaign gets desperate
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