CROYDON IN CRISIS: Tony Newman’s protégé has changed her mind about standing as a councillor in the forthcoming Town Hall elections.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Hamida Ali, the leader of Croydon’s cash-strapped, Labour-controlled council since October 2020, is to stand down at the local elections in May.
In the latest of Ali’s litany of misjudgements since she took over as council leader from her mentor, the discredited Tony Newman, she made her announcement not to the residents she is supposed to represent in Woodside ward, nor to the Croydon public in her weekly bland homilies on the council website every Friday, but to a small clique of Labour councillors and election candidates.
If nothing else, that demonstrated where Ali’s priorities have always been.
With “Decision Not to Stand in May” in the subject header, in an email sent yesterday lunchtime, Ali wrote,
“I’m writing to let you know that I have decided not to stand as a Labour candidate for Woodside ward in the 2022 local elections.
“Croydon and its future couldn’t be more important to me. That’s why I got involved in my community and first put myself forward to be a councillor. Croydon is my home – I grew up here, went to school here and have always been a proud advocate for our borough and our communities.
“It has been the greatest honour to lead this borough over the last 18 months. A role that I took on in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, which has been the most professionally and personally challenging of my life and where I have had one driving purpose – to keep Croydon in Croydon’s hands.
“I am immensely proud of the work I have led with cabinet and we have done together to face up to our situation and fix the council’s finances – and that’s what we have done. This week we set the second council budget under my leadership which also builds on the council’s positive financial performance against the first in this current year where we are forecasting an underspend. The Appointments Committee has also just completed appointing a new top Corporate Management Team for the council which will give the new elected Mayor the strongest possible team to provide them with the best professional advice.
“I stood to be Leader because I couldn’t bear the very real prospect that unelected, Tory government commissioners with no stake in, commitment to, or passion for Croydon could be brought in to run the borough. Now that the council’s position is secure and local democracy in Croydon remains firmly local, the job I set for myself is complete. I can step down in the knowledge that Val [Shawcross] has the experience and the vision to take the borough forward in a new direction.
“I want to thank Group colleagues for how hard all of you have worked over the last 16 months in the most challenging circumstances, how we all came together to work through what was needed and how all of you went about continuing to represent and respond to your communities as we moved forward.
“I will continue to campaign as hard as I can with all of you for Val and for all our candidates working towards a Labour victory that we all need and want to see. Finally, I would like to thank you personally for your support and encouragement during my time as a member of the Labour Group.”
It was only six months ago that Ali agreed to seek reselection to be a candidate in the May 2022 Town Hall elections. So her announcement yesterday represents a significant change of heart.
No reasons have been given for Ali’s decision not to run, though with the matter of £73million of the bankrupt borough’s misallocated housing funds remains yet to be resolved, Croydon is closer today to being run by government-appointed commissioners than at any time since November 2020.
“It’s been a really gruelling 18 months,” a colleague told Inside Croydon today. “I just think Hamida wants to get her life back.”
Educated at Croydon High private girls’ school and living off Stoats Nest Road in Coulsdon, Hamida Ali got her seat on the council in 2014 after a typically Croydon Labour stitch up that saw a sitting councillor for the safe ward of Woodside pushed aside to make way for her.
Taken firmly under the wing of Newman and her other ward colleague, Paul Scott, following Labour’s Town Hall election success six years ago, Ali quickly became part of their cabal and was “fast-tracked” to a cabinet position on a generous allowance in addition to her salary from her day job with the BBC and, later, City Hall, where she worked as an equalities official.
When bullying Blairite Newman jumped ship in October 2020, with the council’s finances collapsing around him, it was Ali who won a rushed leadership contest, by 22 votes to 19 over her fellow cabinet member Alisa Flemming.
Since then, “Apologetic” Ali’s leadership has been characterised by a succession of crises and car-crash media interviews. She resisted all calls for her to resign.
Listen, for instance to Ali’s interview with BBC Radio London’s Vanessa Feltz, from November 2020.
Two days after her election as leader, the first of Grant Thornton’s Reports In The Public Interest was published. Ali said its findings were “shocking”. Other Labour councillors who had been excluded from the auditors’ withering conclusions before the leadership election, later expressed remorse that, given the contents of the RIPI, anyone associated with Newman’s old team should have even been standing to replace the leader that they had done so much to keep in office.
Since then, all on Ali’s watch, there’s been the Section 114 notice, which at the time made Croydon only the second council to go bankrupt this century, another RIPI (this time over the £76million Fairfield fiasco) and the Regina Road council housing scandal, which took place next door to Ali’s own ward, but of which she claimed to have no knowledge.
That Ali had received emailed appeals for help for the ill-served tenants six months before she was left squirming in ITV News interviews ought to have been enough for her immediate resignation then.
But she chose to carry on, despite repeated instances where she appeared out of her depth.
Confronted with “people power” in the form of a petition to force a referendum on whether the council should switch to a directly-elected Mayor, Ali first took the Newman line of trying to block the borough-wide vote. Then, with lawyers hovering, she allowed it.
And then, Ali wasted four months leading a Croydon Labour campaign, conspicuously backed by Blairite MP Steve Reed MP, opposing their own party’s national policy. Ali’s cabinet members went out brandishing ill-judged leaflets condemning “fat cat mayors” and featuring burning £20 notes – this less than a year after she and her mates had crashed and burned the council’s finances with a £63million hole in its budget.
The calamitous campaign not only cost Croydon Labour at least £10,000 in precious campaign funds (Ali wanted to spend more, until she was reminded she risked breaking election law), but also the respect of thousands of Croydon residents and many party activists: every single ward in the borough voted against Ali and Reed’s official Labour position in favour of replacing the “strong leader” with an executive Mayor.
In other ways, Ali was very much the “continuity” leader, with the Newman era culture of bullying and marginalisation of any who dared voice dissent or suggest another way of running things still persisting.
Two councillors who backed the mayoral referendum, Jamie Audsley and Andrew Pelling, both targets of Newman’s spite, were ousted on Ali’s watch. Other capable councillors, tired of the abuse and dysfunctionality within their party and the council, have chosen to walk away.
The major “success” of Ali’s time in charge has been the closely supervised council securing the capitalisation directions – bail-out loans – from the government totalling £120million so far.
It is only this which has allowed Croydon to deliver the “balanced budgets” Ali and her Labour colleagues have, ill-advisedly, been able to boast about.
But it has been done at huge cost to the council and the residents of the borough.
As well as the 400 front-line job cuts at Fisher’s Folly since 2020, this week Ali’s council has approved a budget which cuts Council Tax support from 20,000 of the poorest households in the borough, it is hiking council rents by 4.1per cent and has increased Council Tax by the maximum amount permitted.
It is hard to escape the impression that under Hamida Ali, a Labour-run council is making the poor and vulnerable pay for its own mistakes.
Throughout her time as leader, Ali appeared to defer to Katherine Kerswell, who had been installed by the Conservative government as the borough’s interim CEO after the hurried departure of Jo Negrini in the autumn of 2020.
Indeed, Ali was so much in the thrall of Kerswell that she let the career council exec to oust a handful of senior directors – none of whom would face any disciplinary consequences for their alleged roles in the council’s financial collapse – and then accept a job description for the council’s £192,000 per year top job which Kerswell had pretty much drafted herself, and which saw her as the only interviewee for the position. Any notion that the borough’s elected politicians are running show has been delusional for all the time Ali has been in charge.
When Ali took over as council leader, her employers at the Greater London Authority gave her unpaid leave of absence until May 2022. The timing may be significant, although Ali will have had the same information available to her when she accepted selection as a local election candidate last November.
“More selection fun in Woodside,” was how one Labour member put it after the news of Ali’s departure filtered out at a Croydon Central constituency meeting last night.
Another source was at pains to rule out any issue arising between Ali and Val Shawcross, Labour’s candidate in the Mayor election.
And one of the council leader’s colleagues said, “We’ve all found it really hard going these past 18 months. I think Hamida has done her very best.
“But it has been so gruelling, and I just think she feels now that it is time to step aside.”
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