The Shawcross Redemption: coming back to fix Croydon

‘Uncontaminated’: Val Shawcross

Val Shawcross has spent her life in public service – a charity worker, then New Addington councillor and Croydon council leader in the 1990s; London Assembly member for nearly 20 years; London’s deputy mayor at City Hall in the 2010s; and, most recently, the volunteer chair of the Crystal Palace Park Trust. Now, she wants to be Croydon’s first elected, executive Mayor. Talking exclusively to Inside Croydon, Shawcross tells STEVEN DOWNES why

As you enter her campaign office on the 11th floor of No1 Croydon, Val Shawcross has her sleeves rolled up.

Not for her the phone call to office services to get some figure in oily overalls with a toolbox to trot along and adjust a bolt here or tighten a screw there.

Shawcross, shortly after moving into the building as part of her campaign to be selected and then elected as Labour’s candidate to run as Croydon Mayor next May, is probing around with the office heating system to make it work.

It is, in its own way, a metaphor. Val Shawcross means business. And she’s out to fix things. But there’s plenty that needs fixing.

Within days of announcing that she was applying to be the Labour Party’s candidate to become Croydon’s first executive Mayor, the former council leader had rented herself office space in the business innovation centre high up in No1 Croydon, a symbol of Croydon, the “50p Bit Building” next to East Croydon Station.

Down at street level, a tram clangs its way from the station and on down the hill towards Church Street and the Minster in the distance. The trams, a rare 21st Century success story in south London, remain a testimony to what the council in Croydon is able to achieve when it is well-run. The trams were delivered when Shawcross was council leader.

Success story: trams clanking outside Shawcross’s campaign office are a reminder of her record for delivery

Today, Shawcross is close to the end of Labour’s laborious selection process to choose its candidate to run for elected Mayor next May.

A ballot of members, which has been allowed to drag on for almost three weeks, will have its result declared following tomorrow’s noon deadline.

Shawcross emerged from an equally drawn-out nomination process as one of only two candidates. The other is Councillor Callton Young, who despite his attempts in his literature to rewrite council history, did indeed serve in cabinet under the discredited council leader Tony Newman. Young is now responsible for applying the massive cuts to local spending which are seeing benefits and support removed from some of the borough’s poorest and most vulnerable.

Shawcross is comfortably the favourite to win the selection. Winning the election in May, though, could prove beyond even this accomplished politician.

Her efforts have already been delayed by the local party (it is two months since the Mayoral election was confirmed as going ahead; the Tories have had their candidate in place ever since), and now her party colleagues appear to be doing their damnedest to undermine the credibility of even this most credible of potential candidates with their latest internal vendetta.

Visible: Val Shawcross has ensured she’s been seen widely around the borough

Being Labour’s Croydon Mayor candidate is the epitome of the poisoned chalice: Labour has a toxic reputation in the borough following years of misrule under former chief executive Jo Negrini, presided over by Newman and his numpties.

The borough is bankrupt, the council’s staffing levels have been cut to the bone (“The only thing they haven’t cut is the grass,” is the Tory slogan), and government commissioners are overseeing every drop of red ink dripped over the civic ledgers. There’s even talk of a second Report In The Public Interest on its way from the council’s external auditors.

“It’s worse than I thought it was,” Shawcross admits, describing the culture in the council as “deeply dysfunctional”. And those were in the on-the-record parts of the interview.

It is, effectively, the second time Shawcross has come out of retirement. She left Croydon Council in 2000 when she was among the first to be elected to the London Assembly. After standing down from City Hall after 16 years’ service, she then answered the call when London Mayor Sadiq Khan asked her to be his deputy mayor for transport.

This time, the call Shawcross is answering is an emergency alarm.

“When the ballot result dropped through my letterbox on the referendum, something stirred in the back of my head and I thought, ‘My town’s in a mess. This is my neighbourhood. These are my family and friends. This is my Labour Party and we’re all in a big mess here’.

“I think I could do something to help. Sometimes you think you can make a difference.

“It hadn’t occurred to me at all that I would come out of retirement, because I certainly had been enjoying doing my charity work…”.

Shawcross speaks of her own uncertainties about putting herself forward, her 20-year absence from Croydon matters while at City Hall (“Croydon is surprisingly outside the GLA system in a way,” she notes), “… but actually, the more I asked people, ‘Who’s going to be the candidate?’, you know, ‘What’s the plan?’, it just made more and more sense that maybe I should give it a go.”

Shawcross is that rarity in the Labour Party in not being a divisive figure within the various factions. She’s worked closely with London Mayors from both wings of the party, Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan.

The reaction she got when she announced her intentions to seek the candidacy for Croydon Mayor were “really good”, she says.

Fat cats: Callton Young (front left) enjoyed a selfie of his campaigning against the change to having a Mayor

While her party colleagues were out campaigning against the change in system to having a mayor – including Councillor Young, delivering those ill-considered leaflets with the burning 20-quid notes, and regurgitating MP Steve Reed’s “fat cat mayors” line – Shawcross says she has always supported the change, seeing it as a positive move both for the council and for the borough as a whole – giving residents in the north and the south a unifying figure to relate to.

She talks of her cross-party initiatives with the Greens and Liberal Democrats at City Hall, and how she might appoint a cabinet and committees that draw on talent from outside the Town Hall.

“Having been inside a mayoral-led Greater London Assembly for nearly 20 years, I can set up the new constitution for the council and create a workable new political management system at the Town Hall, with a healthy internal culture of deep scrutiny, challenge and debate,” Shawcross says.

“From Day One, our Labour administration would represent and serve the whole of Croydon and there would be no ‘no go zones’ for me as an executive Mayor in our borough.”

It is towards the end of our wide-ranging and lengthy interview (which is available to listen to as a podcast, here, for paid subscribers to this website) that Shawcross is asked whether she was deliberately trolling the “old regime” at the Town Hall, those councillors and executives who, through what auditors described as “corporate blindness”, allowed the council finances to crash and burn.

Setting standards: Shawcross says she has been surprised at how bad things have become at the council

Shawcross had tweeted a link to the Nolan Principles, the seven guiding rules for those working and serving in public office – guidelines that for many, appeared to have been forgotten by most of the senior appointees at Fisher’s Folly.

Shawcross laughed at the question, and the implicit criticism of the near-eight-year term of the current Labour administration. But she clearly does mean business.

“If they come into my office, it’s going to have the Nolan Principles on the wall, and everyone will know it and everyone will abide by it, because we have to change the culture in there,” Shawcross says. Noticeably, she was not laughing as she said that.

Shawcross is also keen to get on with the election campaign and take the challenge to the Tories and their mayoral candidate, Jason Perry. The South Croydon councillor’s recent turgid article about his candidacy, published on the Conservative Home website, was described by one aide as, “One thousand words and not a single idea”.

For her part, Shawcross has been laying out a fresh raft of policies and proposals which she believes, even at Croydon’s cash-strapped council, she could deliver as Mayor.

Not a single idea: Conservative mayoral candidate Jason Perry

“Too many people find that the council is unresponsive – it doesn’t listen to local views in consultations and staff can be difficult to contact. The result is that residents can feel they are getting a poor service from an organisation that doesn’t seem to care.

“I believe that a Labour council must attend to the people that matter the most – the residents, our local communities, Council Tax-payers, all the ‘customers’ of the council.

“Our caring community in Croydon mobilised to support the vulnerable during the terrible pandemic we have all suffered. I don’t believe that this caring community wants to vote Tory in May 2022. I believe that they will want to vote for a Labour Mayor that will get it right, who will run a sound council and take sensible decisions about priorities.

“I can see that Croydon is structurally under-funded. In fact, that’s always been the case and we need to make a better case to the Treasury.”

But unlike many of her party colleagues in the Town Hall, Shawcross does not use Tory austerity as a crutch to excuse their own lame performance, even referencing the scandalous condition of council flats in South Norwood.

Credible: Shawcross addressing a gathering of party supporters

“Twelve years of vicious Tory austerity and two years of pandemic has eroded the resilience of the community and every one of our public services – from the police to the NHS and the council,” she says. “But to a Band D Council Tax-payer paying £1,880 a year, that is no explanation for why council services have deteriorated so rapidly in recent years.

“As an executive Mayor I would want us to be playing our part in tackling climate change by taking action to reduce carbon emissions in Croydon, but who will listen to a council that doesn’t get its basic services, like repairing its council homes, done properly?

“I want to make sure that Croydon Council becomes a credible and well-run administration again and positions itself to be able to make bids for funds to address our community’s problems and supports our many community groups in the work they do for our young people, the vulnerable and our environment, streets and parks.

“I believe our priority should be the young generation who have suffered during the last 12 years. With crime rising in Croydon, it’s the young people who suffer the most – feeling locked in their homes and having little access to safe outdoor activities outside school. I want to steer our investment towards meeting their needs and finding ways to bid for the money for the community organisations that help them.

“Croydon’s economy is suffering and Croydon town centre is looking neglected and no longer draws in so many visitors – to either our shopping or nightlife. I want to make Croydon a ‘Start-up City’, boosting its range of jobs and recreating the town centre as a distinctive, safe and interesting place to visit.

“There’s work to do on Croydon’s environmental record too – we should be bidding for grants to help insulate Croydon homes – to reduce our carbon emissions and make homes warmer and cheaper to run.”

She has eyes on the Tories as well as her Labour mayoral rival when she says, “I have never voted for the council’s unsustainable budgets” – something which Tory Perry and Young have both done – “and the public will see that,” Shawcross says.

Croydon, Shawcross says, “needs to press the reset button”.

Once the selection result is in tomorrow,  expect to see her rolling up her sleeves to start to do just that.

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About insidecroydon

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
This entry was posted in 2022 council elections, 2022 Croydon Mayor election, Callton Young, Jason Perry, Ken Livingstone, London Assembly, London-wide issues, Mayor of London, No1 Croydon, Sadiq Khan, Tony Newman, Val Shawcross and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Shawcross Redemption: coming back to fix Croydon

  1. A wise Mayor of Croydon would co-opt Andrew Pelling to run the council’s Pension fund.

  2. I have no interest in ensuring Jo Negrini’s, Katherine Kerswell and Heather Cheesbrough’s council pension is super healthy. Val Shawcross, should she be elected, has much more important things to do.

    I’d like her to do what Newman completely failed to do; monitor the performance of the CEO – I have this niggling concern Kerswell is lingering for a big pay-out.

  3. Lewis White says:

    Sorry Sebastian, maybe you have a nice pension stashed away, or a private income, but If I were a typical Croydon Council worker working for many years for a salary of under £30k, with a pathetic 1% annual pay rise for each of the the Osborne Austerity years, and some more years since, I would be very grateful — when I retired– to Andrew Pelling for his stewardship of the Pension fund.

    Ultra high salaries and inflated pensions are the preserve of a privileged few. The product of a top people’s culture that Senior councillors go along with because –presumably– they feel that there are few people out there who could do the job, so they feel they have to offer big rewards to the top brass of the officer grades.

  4. Echoes of James Bond? Tempted out of retirement to save the world? A cynic would say that she’s ICs favourite for the role. Tony Newman is certainly a fan, when she retired in 2018 he said, ““She was a great leader of the council and she was an inspiration to me personally. She’s that rare politician whose had a lot of public support for over two decades. I don’t think you’ll see the likes of her again.”

  5. Michael Lott says:

    Well Steven, we can tell who you favour. Whatever happened to fearless impartial reporting?

  6. Very kind Mr. Towcrate. As you hint, I currently chair the Pension Fund’s Pension Committee. The Pension Fund though is one of the very few things the Mayor will not have power over. The chairing of the Fund’s Committee is in the gift of the councillors and in practice that means in the gift of the councillors of the Majority Group.

    The Fund is also desperately trying to seek “clear blue water” between it and what has been a failing council that sometimes tried it on with the Fund. This move comes at the behest of me, the Tory lead on the Committee, all members of the Committee Labour, Tory & Independent, the chair of our governance overseer (the Pension Board) and our advisors Aon Hewitt.

    And Mr Tillinger, I can assure you that you do have a very real personal financial interest in the Pension Fund for as long as you are a Croydon council tax payer.

    It’s the Council Tax payers who are responsible for paying the staff’s pensions. Pensions are fixed and they don’t go up and down because of how the Fund is run.

    The Fund helps the council pay all its pensions to all its staff. The better the Fund performs the better it is for Council Tax payers who are otherwise on the hook for huge sums of money.

    The council pays £30 million a year into the Fund though that will go down to below £ 27 m a year because the Fund is now getting in much better shape.

    We were right down the bottom of local government pension fund performers. We were a relegation side in football parlance terms and would have been subject to government inspection if we had not improved. We are currently safe from “relegation”.

    I have chaired the Pension Fund on and off three times interspersed around two party political sackings since 2016 (though this is dangerous frankly creating so much inconsistency when so much money is involved). The sackings were entirely unrelated to pensions. I was sacked because in case 1, I opposed the banning of black music in our clubs, a ban more redolent of the 1820s than a progressive 21st century Labour council and in case 2, because I proposed Croydon having a Directly Elected Mayor (DEM) and moved at a meeting successfully that Croydon South Labour resolve that they have a DEM as their policy.

    The Fund is up from £863.2 million when I started the chairing. It’s now at £1,651.1 million up 93 % or £787.9 million. That’s serious money. It’s not a game this and that’s why I get concerned about the flippancy with which the Committee is treated. I am now facing a possible third sacking in just six years arising from a disciplinary process for talking to this media organisation. This media organisation is proscribed by the Labour Group of councillors.

    Anyway back in the world of rationality and the good advice we receive from officers and advisers we have made a series of good calls which has allowed us to outperform other local government pension funds down in our part of the league table.

    These good calls include going long of £ 250 million (buying pounds) at 1.21USD/GBP equivalent, being in cash before the COVID drop in equity values and then buying after the fall, making a good call out of equities into bonds just before a major bond rally, diversifying into an outperforming fossil fuel free equity fund that involved a well timed passive to active shift and a heavily diversified portfolio that includes tapping into high return green investments.

    The £1.65 billion Fund is now 107 % funded instead of a measly 66 % funded.

    That is indeed serious money for the council tax payer and the council should leave us alone and stop playing party politically related games with a sum of money that needs consistent oversight.

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