Croydon 2021: a tale of lockdowns, let-downs and meltdowns

DID WE HAVE NEWS FOR YOU: Croydon entered 2021 as a bankrupt borough, yet there was worse still to come. Inside Croydon has been there, reporting on every twist and turn of events around the cash-strapped council as it entered a second year of covid-19 pandemic. Here, we look back on the first three months of another testing year, with the help of a couple of video nasties…

JANUARY

The list of our most-read articles is not necessarily an accurate indicator of the most significant reports. Thus a story on January 6 this year may not have been seen by as many as some others, but it set the tone for what was to become the second year in lockdown.

Our report was based on an internal email sent by the council’s director of public health, Rachel Flowers, which explained that there were 244 people in Mayday Hospital receiving treatment for coronavirus.

Our report stated, “Writing on the day that London went into lockdown for the third time since last March, Flowers explained, ‘Our covid-19 incidence rate is now 964.5 cases per 100,000 – higher than the London average for the first time – and I am seeing around 600 new cases every day’.”

For the record, nearly 12 months on and according to the most recent figures available from the council, up to December 22, 2021, more than 1,400 new cases were being recorded each day. Over the course of the seven-day period to Dec 22, there were 8,003 positive tests registered, nearly double the previous week, a rate of 2,059 per 100,000 of population.

Binmageddon: Veolia regularly reduce their service levels, until they are caught out by residents and shamed into delivering what they are paid to do

By December 21, 2021, there had been 1,101 deaths attributed to covid-19 in Croydon.

Of the other most-read articles from the first month of this year, on January 18 Inside Croydon reported exclusively of the Tory government’s plan to impose an “improvement board” to oversee the running of the cash-strapped council.

And under the heading “Inside Croydon gets results”,  on January 11 we reported how the council had allowed their rubbish contractors, Veolia, to quietly suspend their collections of garden waste, a service for which residents had paid £65 per household.

This was just the latest of our long-running series of Binmageddon stories about the shortcomings of the council’s waste contract with Veolia.

Among the excuses offered for failings this time was the need to “re-prioritise” services due to staff absences through covid.

Shamed: the council was forced into a garden waste U-turn

The council, having collected £1.2million upfront in fees for the non-existent service, even tried to claim it had no responsibility to provide refunds.

Apparently shamed by the adverse coverage, by January 15 the council was announcing that it was to resume its paid-for garden waste service.

Also in January, there was the latest scandal of “Croydon children given out of date bread in their food parcels“.

FEBRUARY

Suspended: Tony Newman has been waiting on a call from the Labour Party since January

Inside Croydon’s exclusive reports on the collapse of the Labour administration at the local council saw us break the news that Tony Newman, the council leader who had crashed the Town Hall’s finances, was suspended by his own party.

On February 11, we reported, “An ‘administrative suspension’, as it is referred to by the press office at the Labour Party, has also been applied to Simon Hall, the councillor for New Addington and the cabinet member for finance under Newman’s leadership.

“At the time of his resignation as a cabinet member in October, Hall said that he was ‘proud’ of his achievements in the six years since 2014 when he had been in charge of the borough’s finances.”

Newman had been a councillor in Croydon since 1994 and leader of the Labour group at the Town Hall for 15 years until his resignation in October 2020.

To date, Newman and Hall remain suspended by the Labour Party, pending an investigation into their actions while in charge of the Town Hall.

Get the message?: some well-informed graffiti on Brick by Brick hoardings around Kindred House which is being built next to the Flyover

A photostory published on this site on February 1, 2021, showed that coverage of the council’s financial collapse, and the part played in it by Blairites Newman and Hall’s flagship policy of lending £200million to a house-building company that failed to build many houses was indeed “cutting through”, as angry slogan-writers asked the very reasonable question, “Where is our money?”

The latest Brick by Brick annual accounts, sneaked out on Christmas Eve last week, show that no one really knows even now…

The consequences of the failures of Brick by Brick led to a council cabinet decision in February to flog off 15 council-owned sites around the borough, in what is reckoned to be the biggest civic fire-sale ever seen in London.

Expensive mistake: the Croydon Park Hotel

And it was another report of financial incompetence that had Newman and Hall’s finger prints all over it.

As we reported on February 19, “The council has given the green light to flogging off the Croydon Park Hotel, potentially at another massive loss to the bankrupt borough’s coffers…

The council’s 2018 purchase of the 4-star hotel at East Croydon has proved to be hugely controversial, not least because the council leadership authorised paying £5million above the asking price for the site’s freehold.

“The owners of the 210-room hotel had it on the market at £25million. Sources in the property business suggest it was being offered to potential buyers in early 2018 for £18million.

“In July 2018, Tony Newman, the then council leader, and Simon Hall, his finance chief, pushed through a decision at cabinet which saw the council buy the hotel for £35.7million (including VAT). Their commercial property policy under which this purchase was made would not be agreed by the full council until October 2018.

“[In October 2020], auditors Grant Thornton, in their Report In The Public Interest, stated, ‘The council’s approach to borrowing and investments has exposed the council and future generations of taxpayers to significant financial risk.

Stuart King: works for developers’ lobbyists while cabinet member in charge of council assets

“’There has not been appropriate governance over the significant capital spending and the strategy to finance that spending’.”

The scandals over Croydon Council’s entanglement with the Croydon Park Hotel were not to end there, though.

As Inside Croydon exclusively revealed after the property was sold, for around £10million less than the council’s purchase price, the buyers picking up this multi-million-pound bargain at tax-payers’ expense just happen to be developers represented by the Terrapin Group.

That’s the PR firm that employs Stuart King, the Labour councillor and cabinet member responsible for… “assets management”.

At a council meeting in October, King described this massive discount for one of his employer’s clients as, “What I perceive to be a conflict of interest arising from my employment.” No shit, Sherlock.

King remains a councillor and deputy leader of the Labour group at the Town Hall.

MARCH

There is covid, of course.

And there’s the council’s financial collapse, too.

But the Croydon news story of the year, by some distance, is surely the exposé by television producer Sarah O’Connell for ITV News of “the worst flats in Britain”, in council blocks at Regina Road, South Norwood: Croydon shamed over ‘dangerous squalor’ in council flats

No shame: Alison Butler

Despite the condemnations and national scandal provoked by the News at Ten TV report, not a single politician at Croydon Council has resigned, or been sacked.

Indeed, Alison Butler, Tony Newman’s former council deputy and cabinet member responsible for Brick by Brick, for the pitifully pathetic delivery of new council homes, and for handing repairs contractors a renewed contract in 2020, to this day remains as a Labour councillor, collecting her council allowances, with never even a suggestion that she might, for example, have the party whip withdrawn.

The systemic problems in the flats in Regina Road pre-date the pandemic and the council’s financial collapse, yet a subsequent report found that despite council tenants reporting leaks, damp and other serious issues with their homes for four years, nothing had been done to fix the issues.

‘Like living in a horror movie’: Fransoy Hewitt spoke eloquently of her Regina Road nightmare

While the council and the ward councillors proved themselves to be negligent or incompetent, or both, through all this emerged the hard work of volunteer groups such as the South Norwood Community Kitchen, who did their best to help many of the worst-affected tenants.

From the scandal also emerged the Regina Road Residents’ Support Group, an organisation that council officials go to great lengths to try to ignore.

And brave individual residents such as Fransoy Hewitt, the young mum featured in the first ITV News reports,  who dealt with her plight so stoically and would later shame the council leadership with a powerful presentation at a Town Hall meeting.

Compare Hewitt’s composure and dignity to the car-crash interview given to ITV News, belatedly, perhaps reluctantly, by the new council leader, Hamida Ali, in response to her council being caught out.

It is 17 minutes of embarrassment for “Apologetic” Ali, her council and the borough she is supposed to represent. It’s well worth another, end-of-year watch, especially in the context of what has happened since.

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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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4 Responses to Croydon 2021: a tale of lockdowns, let-downs and meltdowns

  1. The iC annual year review emphasises how iC has, for a good time now, been the media of record for our town.

    This makes it part of a long proud tradition of such recording of our Borough’s affairs That’s something that started when print media had a presence in the Borough.

    That print media had great campaigning journalists like Hilary Brook (social services & education public policy), Ian Austin, Gareth Davies (very active still at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism), Malcolm Starbrook, Peter Truman (not a newspaper stage name), Aline Nassif, Robert Fisk and Mike Didymus. I suppose I should add Jesse Ward too, but I promise your loyal reader that I was not there when he formed a local paper in 1869. Sadly one local papers’ stories these days often have the refrain that the journalist had to take a long tiresome time to get to Croydon to report on the story.

    We should value the press. The fourth estate holds power to account constrained only by the laws of the land.

    The reality is that Inside Croydon is the only body reporting on the council and Croydon public life in detail. It’s also the only Croydon organisation actually consistently holding the council to account.

    Such a holding to account hasn’t been taking place in the council chamber. The, I presume, dispirited Conservatives have voted for council budgets with Labour. They were criticised for their supine performance by the external investigation into the council. That they don’t accept that criticism says more about the Conservatives than it does about the criticism.

    Scrutiny has been found by external investigation too to have been an integral part of the failed governance in the town hall. Not that that seems to have registered itself with most of those conducting scrutiny at the council.

    Under the Directly Elected Mayor the 70 councillors will have a lot more time to up their scrutiny role performance as that will become one of their principal jobs.

    I know that those in Britain with an authoritarian bent vent their frustration with the Press.

    As someone who has successfully fought a leading Sunday newspaper in the libel court I can understand how some feel that the law can be a riskily expensive and not that satisfying a process.

    But freedom of speech should be what we stand for as British people. We should value the press.

    Labour locally seems to have wondered way off the track when it comes to valuing the press. I kind of presumed when I joined Labour over 10 years ago that Labour was a party with liberal values. In Croydon though the Labour party can, on occasion, betray a nasty authoritarian, intolerant streak in its makeup.

    It’s just extraordinary that a party like Croydon Labour should have flirted with its petulant and authoritarian side when dealing with the dominant media organisation in the town.

    The infantile formal boycotting of iC continues by Labour, the Council Leader and the council’s press office.

    There is hardly any other local press for the council press office to talk with so it’s just odd how there are not cuts there when the council is axing services and hacking away at benefits for those in need. That’s an easy early saving for an incoming Mayor.

    If you are employing someone to talk to the local press who is doing that job by resolutely not speaking to the press and just issuing press releases that aren’t sent to the press, that person is frankly redundant.

    It’s a pathetic, sad tragedy that that money is not being used to pay for benefits for the needy of Croydon instead. The council intends from April 1 to axe £5.7 million a year going to needy council taxpayers. An example of this would be a young lower paid carer of a long-term sick parent seeing a £120 a month cut in support. For Labour Croydon paying someone to boycott iC is a higher priority.

    Labour councillors are themselves banned from retweeting mentions of iC by the vast majority of their colleagues who supported a behind closed doors motion of Labour councillors to institute such a bar. This ban on retweeting has generally been observed on pain of party discipline. However we are very encouragingly seeing people break that line including the Chief Whip. I think this comes from the good influence of Val Shawcross. I hope that the Labour Group Chief Whip after having a strong word with himself will quietly encourage this new Perestroika/Glasnost. We have though also passed a number of motions in private condemning “the misogynistic hate site”. What good does that do?

    I know that boycotts sometimes happen, with good reason, for example as regards to the Sun.

    In Croydon though it’s all just gone completely astray.

    Now, I want to talk about something important. I want to talk about me.

    All this impacts on me personally too. Actually getting rather serious it’s damaged my health. Then all the joking around just falls away to the ground.

    It’s just peculiar that I am recalled from my Labour candidature in Waddon for allegedly talking to iC. I confess that I do speak to iC. Talking to the media is what politicians do.

    Banning those who talk to iC is more vital apparently than being a good councillor putting Waddon and its residents first. More important than asking pertinent questions at scrutiny. Of greater concern too than serious money that comes from chairing a Croydon Pension Fund that’s outperformed local government pension funds by making one good call after another and made £787.9 m (up 93%) since I started chairing it. £390,000 a day made, every single day, since March 2016. They say money talks but not here apparently. Petty feuds with the Press count for more. But this is money impacts directly upon the Croydon council tax payer’s liability to the Fund which now has more than £1.651 billion in investments.

    I have been subjected to Orwellian investigations into my relations with iC. It still goes on. Only yesterday confidential information about my health sent to iC was forwarded, I presume by a third party, to the Chief Executive of the council. I have her automatic receipt dated yesterday.

    It’s just an Alice in Wonderland world where my candidature for Labour has been rescinded based on “evidence” of five openly available free press articles in iC themselves openly penned by other people. The Labour party locally seems to be doing a poor Alyaksandr Lukashenka impression. The Belorussian state has made illegal the criticism of Lukashenka. Lukashenka has not though gone so far as to making it an offence to be in the same town as the critics.

    An underlying story in 2021 has been the rumbling implications of Croydon Labour associating itself with the hacking of Inside Croydon.

    These implications are running on into 2022.

    In 2021 we did though have an adult come into the room in the form of Val Shawcross. At last, one other professional politician in Croydon who talks to iC openly.

    • Andrew, if confidential information about your health was forwarded to the Chief Executive of the council without your permission or good reason, that would appear to be a very serious breach of the Data Protection Act 2018, and its applicability to sensitive personal data.

      Potentially this would be a criminal offence.

      The website of the Information Commissioner’s Office gives helpful advice and information on your legal rights and what to do if you think they have been breached.

  2. Sorry, I forgot Ross Lidbetter on the list of former Croydon journalists. These days there is only one journal running from Croydon and it’s this one. You can’t cover a Borough with 277,492 voters from well outside the place, even in a virtual COVID world.

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