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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The trouble is more than the bankruptcy of the council – the financial crisis is a symptom of deeper problems,” she says.
“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.
“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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