EXCLUSIVE: After 40 years in Croydon politics, councillor decides to run as the ‘non-party’ candidate, offering to axe council rent increases, sack a distrusted council planning director and start a forensic investigation to recover the millions lost on the Fairfield Halls refurb.
By STEVEN DOWNES
Andrew Pelling, the former Tory MP and Labour councillor, is to stand in May’s local elections as a non-party independent candidate.
He says that if elected as Mayor, among his first moves would be to axe the 4.1per cent increase in council rents that was passed by his former Labour colleagues on Monday, and he would insist on the resignation – or sacking – of Heather Cheesbrough as the council’s director of planning.
He says that as Mayor, he would also send in forensic accountants to find where the near-£70million supposedly spent on the Fairfield Halls refurbishment has gone, and take the matter to the courts if necessary.
In the last eight years as a Labour councillor, Pelling was one of the few to dare oppose Tony Newman, the council leader who presided over the Town Hall’s financial collapse. Pelling also spoke in favour of having a directly-elected mayor, a change in the way the borough is run which he says he has supported for 20 years.
It seems that Pelling will be standing for election not once on May 5, but twice.
As well as being on the ballot paper to become the borough’s first executive Mayor, he is also putting himself forward for election as a candidate for the Waddon council seat he has held there since 2014. It will be news that will not be greeted warmly by his erstwhile Labour running mates.
Pelling was expelled from Labour last month, having been caught preparing his own campaign in the belief that Blairite party officials in Croydon were determined to de-select him in Waddon for daring to break the Town Hall whip and vote against cuts in Council Tax benefits.
Despite his “outsider” status, Pelling has appeared to have some influence over affairs: in February, while still a Labour councillor, he called on his group leader, Hamida Ali, to resign.
A few days later, “Apologetic” Ali, who had held the top job at the Town Hall since October 2020, announced a U-turn and declared she would not even be standing in the council elections in May.
There has been no formal announcement nor launch event staged by the veteran politician, who was first elected to Croydon Council in 1982. Pelling spent 24 years at the Town Hall as a Conservative councillor, as well as becoming Croydon and Sutton’s first London Assembly Member in 2000. From 2006 to 2010, Pelling was the Conservative MP for Croydon Central.
Pelling stood as an independent parliamentary candidate in the 2010 General Election, running against his former council colleague, Gavin Barwell (Barwell won; Pelling finished fourth). In 2011 he joined the Labour Party, helping them to win Waddon ward, and the Town Hall, from the Tories in 2014.
Following Croydon Labour’s disastrous referendum campaign last year, when they opposed the switch to a directly elected Mayor, Pelling stood aside as another councillor, Jamie Audsley, put his name forward to be the party’s mayoral candidate. But Audsley fared poorly against Val Shawcross, Labour members’ overwhelming choice.
In the past few weeks, Pelling has been out and about delivering leaflets across the borough, as well as frequently posting gnomic comments on Twitter about how best to run a local authority.
The cat was let out of the bag over his campaign, however, when the line-up for one of the forthcoming election hustings was released at the weekend.
DEMOC, the residents-led campaign group for a directly-elected mayor, is staging a hustings event in Park Hill next month at which five mayoral candidates can be quizzed about their policies and approach to running Croydon Council.
While DEMOC identifies the candidates from Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green parties, it also lists an independent candidate as “TBC” (to be confirmed).
Inside Croydon understands that this place at the top table has been reserved for Pelling.
Given the lack of confidence in the Boris Johnson-led Conservative government nationally, especially in London (recent polling put the Tories 30per cent behind Labour in the capital), and the continuing anger and distrust at Labour among Croydon voters and the mounting disaffection with the party among many on the left, it seems likely that Pelling could fill the role of the “Anyone but Labour” candidate.
In an entirely unscientific poll staged by Inside Croydon last month, nearly twice as many readers of this website said that they would vote for Pelling if he stood for election as Mayor as said they would support Shawcross. By most other estimates, Shawcross is a strong front-runner, possibly the eventual winner on first-preference votes alone.
Significantly, this Croydon mayoral election will be determined by transferrable votes, with electors asked for a first and a second choice. And nearly 18per cent of those who took part in the iC poll voted for the option, “It’s a transferable vote system, so I can give Pelling my first vote and use my second to back my usual party.”
That, together with his own personal poll of 41per cent would give plenty of encouragement to the “Pelling for Mayor” campaign, which is running under the slogan of “Vote for Croydon, not the Party”.
Today, Pelling told Inside Croydon, “Outside the political bubble that too many of our local politicians inhabit all the time, I find that many residents feel uninspired by the election so far.
“They are very unhappy with party politics in local government.
“They are looking for an experienced, independent candidate.
“I say to them I will work for you, not the party machine.”
Pelling has relished being able to put into the public domain the fact that Shawcross’s campaign – thought to have a generous budget of £80,000 – is largely funded with money taken from Labour councillors’ allowances, which are themselves paid for by residents’ Council Tax payments. Around half of Shawcross’s election budget is thought to be drawn from councillor stipends.
Among his other policy pledges, Pelling says that he will ensure that Labour’s “cruel cuts” to Council Tax Support, which will affect 20,000 of the borough’s poorest residents, will be reversed – largely from changes in the way payments are made to the council pension fund, the one financial success at Croydon Council in the past four years. Pelling, a former merchant banker, has been the chair of the pension fund committee during its recent success.
And he says, “I want to see pilots of devolving individual planning and budget decisions to local communities.
“I also want to see the council’s director of planning, who has lost the confidence of residents, sacked.
“Sacked, too, should be BHLive, the arts centre operators who are failing to manage our Fairfield Halls very well. A local arts trust should oversee our Halls.”
A Katharine Street source said tonight as they headed in to the last full meeting of the council before the election, “Labour should win most of the elections in London this May, judging by the polls. But here in Croydon the general sentiment is less favourable for Labour, more unpredictable. People, the voters, are not fools, and they know what’s gone on here over the last five or six years has been wrong.
“So among all the London boroughs on election day, Croydon could prove to be a bit of a wild card. Andrew Pelling’s decision to run has just made things that bit more interesting.”
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