‘Any would be better for Croydon than the old strong leader’

Not-so-plausible deniability: outside the bubble of Croydon Labour, Val Shawcross’s appeal is beginning to wear thin

With a month until election day, hustings for the borough’s first-ever Mayoral contest are coming thick and fast. KEN TOWL went along to last night’s event held in Park Hill, so that you didn’t have to…

Val Shawcross really ought to be a shoo-in for Mayor of Croydon.

Labour’s candidate’s CV is impressive, and she oozes an attractive mixture of competence and compassion: she has the heart and the brains to do the job.

And all the time the demographics of Croydon are shifting relentlessly towards younger voters with degrees, usually good pickings for Labour.

But on the evidence of last night’s Mayoral hustings, things are not that simple.

Shawcross’s campaign was undermined in advance by the execrable record of the current Labour council. Bankrupt and mired in sleaze, it hangs like a weight around her neck.

The shadow cast by the council flats in Regina Road, and their Dickensian condition, loomed large, too. In such a context, competence and compassion constitute a hard sell.

But what of the alternatives?

DEMOC, the residents-led organisation that had campaigned so successfully for the switch to a directly-elected Mayor to run the council, organised last night’s hustings with the five candidates that they considered had a “fighting chance” on May 5. You could see their point. Had all eight candidates been invited, we would have been there till midnight.

Hardly a laugh a minute: from left Howard, Perry (speaking) and Underwood at last night’s Mayoral hustings

Thus, I did not get the chance to assess Farah “London”, the ex-Conservative, Gavin FL Palmer, the independent ex-Conservative, nor Winston McKenzie, the ex-Conservative, and ex pretty much any party that has existed in the last 20 years, with the exceptions of Labour and the BNP.

Denied a seat at the top table, Palmer did, however, have acolytes at the meeting handing out his card. I looked at his website. It proclaims that he will “bring Classical Liberalism to South London”. I will save these three for another day.

The invited candidates were seated where you might normally expect to find an altar at St Matthew’s Church. This made them look for all the world like a slightly truncated Last Supper. Which was Christ? Which was Judas?

At one end Andrew Pelling (ex-Conservative MP, ex-Assembly Member, ex-Labour councillor, and general man for all seasons) was chatting amiably with Shawcross. They looked like the grown-up politicians they both are. The body blows would come later.

At the other end of the table, Jason Perry, the “Local Conservatives” candidate, exchanged the odd word with veteran Green Peter Underwood, while relative newbie Richard (“call-me-Rick”) Howard sat quietly in the middle, as Liberal Democrats are wont to do.

How did they all get on? Below is my unscientific analysis, given spurious weight by the addition of arbitrary numbers:

‘Balanced budget’: Val Shawcross

Val Shawcross set out her stall early on. “The buck does stop with the previous Labour council.” They were to blame; she was not. This necessary defensive tactic took a lot of heat out of her oratory. She talked about a “re-set button”, how she had supported a Mayoral campaign (something of a career-ender within Croydon Labour ranks) and offered a leisure centre in the south of the borough, a breadcrumb, if not red meat for Croydon’s aspirational professionals.

There was some audible scoffing when she claimed the council was now working to a “balanced budget”, so she changed her tack and leaned into an attack on the council for its “breach of trust” and “a lack of respect” for Croydon, and even spoke to “a strong sense that the council has declared war on Croydon in terms of planning”. Accurate, but not terribly comradely.

It was painful to watch. She must be seething with contempt for the likes of Tony Newman, the past leader of Croydon Council.

Shawcross’s best applause came when she answered a question from the floor. The old chestnut, “What makes you stand out as a candidate?” inspired a few groans from the audience but gave Shawcross a chance to point out that she was the only woman on the ballot paper. Perhaps it got the best applause because it was the best point that she made.

It did not please the two Underwood groupies behind me. One of them muttered “It’s a plant! It’s a plant!” And I thought the Greens were all in favour of plants.

Verdict: In her favour, competence and compassion. Against, she will have a job to convince that she is the re-set button.

Score 6/10

Charisma-free zone: Jason Perry

For the Conservatives, Jason Perry made very little headway. I put his apparent lack of passion down to his desire to be as unlike Boris Johnson as possible. While Shawcross is hampered by association with local council sleaze, Perry is vulnerable by association with national government sleaze.

He started with self-effacing humour: “I am the last speaker, so you can relax a bit once I’ve finished speaking.” I feared that, in fact, the audience would relax a lot before he had finished speaking. He complained about Regina Road, but every candidate, including Val Shawcross, had already done that.

His one specific proposal was the return of the graffiti removal team. He offered vague support for the police and education without any measurable commitment. His only laugh – and it was a muted one – was when he said he was glad the hustings were not a beauty contest. Well, they do say that politics is showbusiness for ugly people.

He missed a trick, though, when he cited Croydon’s planning department as “the 18th worst in the country!” The crowd was shocked. Who knew that there were as many as 17 councils with worse planning departments than Croydon?

Verdict: In favour, “Croydon born and bred”, supports Crystal Palace Football Club. That’s about it. Against, a charisma-free zone.

Score 4/10

Major medals: Richard Howard

Rick Howard, the Quiet One, the George Harrison to Andrew Pelling’s Paul McCartney and Peter Underwood’s John Lennon, let slip that he was a retired army major. He also let slip, as if it was the most mundane thing in the world, that he had worked in bomb disposal.

That he worked in finance was impressive enough – he would be the man to look after our money – but a guy who dismantles IEDs on the road to Basra is going to be particularly thoughtful before he makes any big decisions.

Howard did the usual LibDem playbook thing of being meticulously fair about criticising both the current Labour administration and the previous Conservative one. He relied on cliché just a little too much. When he said he would “hold people’s feet to the fire”, Major Howard looked like he meant it all too literally. Then again, when he claimed that his motto is “What gets measured gets done”, it started to sound like things-one-ought-to-say-in-a-hustings. Or at Sandhurst.

Rick Howard is one to watch. He will go places, but not here in Croydon and not in 2022; he is still learning his trade.

Verdict: In favour: A bona fide hero. He defused bombs in Iraq.  Against: this looks very much like a practice run.

Score 7/10

Three-point plan: Peter Underwood

Peter Underwood has a three-point plan: power to the people, transparency and happiness.

The Green Party candidate’s central theme was one of delegating decision-making to the people affected by the decisions. This was admirable but potentially flawed – what if Croydon’s residents wanted more car parks and an end to bicycle lanes?

He differed markedly with Jason Perry on the potential Westfield shopping centre. While Perry claimed, apparently seriously, that we should court Westfield, Underwood asserted that “the old shopping centre is dead”, and proposed a piazza-style town centre, leaving the shopping to outlying neighbourhoods.

As for the Fairfield Halls, Underwood spoke with palpable concern for the arts to justify his popularly received cry of “Get rid of BHLive!” His call for the sacking of the Halls’ Bournemouth-based management company, which has reduced it to a barely-functioning shadow of its former glory, was echoed by all the other candidates, apart from Val Shawcross, whose criticism was apparent but more muted.

Taking his cue from Underwood, Howard was able to commandeer a round of applause by asking “Does the Fairfield Halls look like it has had £70million spent on it? No? Know why? Because it hasn’t!”

Verdict: For, Underwood has both the will and the skill to break the two-party mould. Against, he is scrabbling for none-of-the-above votes in a crowded field.

Score: 6/10

Independent: Andrew Pelling

Andrew Pelling, the only candidate at St Matthew’s without a party machine behind him, he had his work cut out. He set out his credentials – he had championed the establishment of the BRIT School, a gem of a place that provides dramatic arts education to state pupils and allowed rare access to careers normally reserved for pupils in private education or with private means. Croydon Labour had been against it.

Pelling described himself as a whistleblower who had paid the price with expulsion from the Labour Party. He cited his role as an investment banker and the performance of the council pension fund that he oversaw– possibly the one thing in the past four years that has gone right in Croydon Council – thus highlighting his financial acumen.

He was proud, he said, to be an independent. Countering Shawcross’ attempts to put Labour’s past behind her, Pelling said, “Labour’s culture remains unchanged. Their main activity is expelling each other.” Harsh, but not far off the mark.

Pelling spoke, eschewing the microphone, with a passion that spoke to a real desire for good local government. He was generous, praising a pair of Labour council candidates as well as a Conservative for their ability and honesty as individuals, thus displaying his ability to work across the political aisle. He was brutal, too, attacking Shawcross for overseeing large Council Tax rises during her tenure as council leader in the 1990s.

Cleverly, Pelling finished with the point that this election, like the London Mayoral one uses SV: you get a first and second preference votes. So you can vote for who you like best first and then the least-worst party second.

Obviously, we were supposed to infer that the former would be Mr Andrew Pelling, but there was no doubt that both Howard and Underwood would be competing for this kind of tactical voting, too.

Verdict: For, if anything overqualified for the job, financially a proven safe pair of hands, unhampered by party affiliation. Against, perhaps his principled stand will look like a vanity project.

Score: 8/10

Any of these candidates, any of them, would be better for Croydon than the current “strong leader”, or the previous one.

We have DEMOC to be grateful to, for forcing on the council the very democratic consultation that candidates like Pelling and Underwood championed in their speeches.

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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
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16 Responses to ‘Any would be better for Croydon than the old strong leader’

  1. Thanks for this IC. Without you we probably wouldn’t have reached this stage. And we’d still have the ‘execrable’ crew in charge. Without IC’s coverage Croydonians wouldn’t know much, if anything, about the Mayoral elections. Please post info about future hustings – I couldn’t make this one, unf.

  2. David Simons says:

    Shawcross via the party bankrolling her campaign and ‘Perry the Invisible’ have been the Croydon political landscape for years; where has it got us? Croydon has always had aspirations to do things differently and to punch above it’s weight, now is the time. An Independent Croydon FOR an Independent Croydon. The Greens and Lib Dems are formidable contenders but we need true, experienced Independence.

  3. Tom Tannion says:

    I listened intently to the candidates and would have been impressed with Mr Pelling had he done less Boris Johnson style ‘scapegoating’ and “I am/I have” statements. Mr Howard came across as a candidate prepared to set S.M.A.R.T. objectives. Mr Underwood is clearly a person who will listen – though I’m not clear about the outcome of that listening.

  4. John Weiss says:

    I’m not that mobile and certainly couldn’t visit these events. Thank you to IC for bringing them to us. I hope the successful Mayor candidate will develop a strong relationship with the only news source in Croydon – and instruct the council’s press department to pull their fingers out and use communications outlets that people read and subscribe to. Newman , Negrini and Kerswell’s avoidance of IC was and is pathetic.

    From the very helpful IC summary above:

    Val – “a strong sense that the council has declared war on Croydon in terms of planning” What does this mean and what are you going to do about the planning department leader and Document SPD2? No Clarification, no vote.

    Jason – Croydon’s planning department as “the 18th worst in the country!” This is rubbish – not to be joked about – no clear statement of intent, no vote.

    Rick – who?

    Peter – always talks sense, to me. But I don’t know his views on planning?

    Andrew – what are detailed views on planning? Vote depends on it.

    I make no apologies for my belief that planning, and its aggressive administration by the current Director is the most important thing to be sorted out.

    I read on IC earlier that a new executive Mayor would mean the current CEO goes? Please tell me that is true. That would be fantastic.

    • jackgriffin1933 says:

      Plenty of people want SDP2 canned, although I suspect mostly that’s code for “no development at all up the posh end”, without realising that it is quite closely aligned with Sadiq Khan’s London Plan, particularly section H2 – ‘Small Sites’.

      Croydon has been give a target of 20,790 completions (2019-2029) and a minimum of 6,410 of those are to be on Small Sites (less than 0.25ha). Furthermore, it also proposes that intensification takes place within 800m of stations. It also wants these small site developments delivered by small- to medium-sized builders.

      I can’t find the reference now, but IIRC there’s also a presumption that applications for these should be approved, unless there’s compelling reasons otherwise.

      Thus, even without SDP2 and an anti-developer mayor, Croydon will still be obliged to continue doing a good deal of what it has been doing.

      And some of that development, especially around stations (Reedham, Purley Oaks, Purley, Kenley, Coulsdon Town etc etc), will have to be up the posh end (which, as a resident of same, seems right and fair to me).

      • John Weiss says:

        Yes- I agree with most of what you say, but our neighbouring boroughs have similar housing targets to Croydon and they don’t have the divisive blunt instrument that is SPD2.

        Not saying SPD2 is not effective at getting housing numbers.

        But I’d point out it’s the sub-9 flatted units that are purely private investments.

        There is no question that Clr Scott and Planner Pete Smith’s (now retired who worked under Heather Chessbrough) intent at the outset was purely (not Purley) politically driven. It was a Citizen Smith kick in the teeth to the ‘Good Life’ suburbs and sadly nobody saw it for what it was put the breaks on it.

        Pete Smith is largely blamed for it in the council (why Heather doesn’t take respondinfor it is beyond me) and Cllr Scott was eventually sacked. But SDP2 is still there and is indirectly the reason we are having a Mayoral election! 😊

        • jackgriffin1933 says:

          “But I’d point out it’s the sub-9 flatted units that are purely private investments”.

          Yes I’d agree with you over this.

          I’m quite happy with infills or backland developments comprising three- and four-bedroom houses, rather than speculative flats for the BTL market.

  5. Anita Smith says:

    I too was at the meeting and thought IC’s reporting of it was very accurate. However there was one elephant in the room not addressed which was – Given your party’s campaign to try and get the people of Croydon not to vote for a Mayor in last October’s referendum, why are you now standing as a prospective Mayoral candidate, and can you see the hypocrisy in doing so?

    We all know politics is a dirty business, but we all remember for example how bitterly Newman and his cronies rubbished the idea of a Mayor, saying it was a Tory plot and they already had a “strong leader” model in place. I have in my possession a copy of the Labour leaflet put out by certain politicians claiming that Croydon didn’t want/need a “fat cat mayor”. How quickly we all forget. That same party is now fielding a candidate.

    At the meeting on Thursday, Val Shawcross claimed she had “supported a Mayoral campaign”, so why wasn’t she expelled from the Labour party like Andrew Pelling and Jamie Audsley? Val would have done better in my opinion to have distanced herself from the failures of the Labour controlled council and herself stood as an Independent.

    And if memory serves me correctly, I think Peter Underwood and the Lib Dems were also against the idea of a Mayor, preferring their own ways forward. Only the Conservatives were for a Mayor, but then if you believe Newman et al, it was all their idea anyway! Isn’t democracy a wonderful thing!

  6. Dan Maertens says:

    Thank you IC for your excellent coverage.
    Does no one remember V S when she was Leader of the Council?
    Not as bad as Tony et al but close!
    Andrew Pelling is head and shoulers above the rest.

  7. Anita Smith says:

    I stand corrected. They did indeed de-select Jamie and in doing so silenced him and all because he thought having an elected Mayor would be good for Croydon. How very dare he!!! At least 150 people attended this hustings which shows the level of interest in this process.

    • The Labour Party’s de-selection of Jamies Audsley as a candidate in Bensham Manor ward – we understand under strong influence from MP Steve Reed OBE – did not silence him.

      Audsley has silenced himself. He could be ought campaigning now for what he believes in. Instead, he has just occasionally been spotted in one or two of those nauseating campaign selfies, apparently supporting Val Shawcross and the very people who acted against him, a decent ward councillor, with such spite and venom.

      Several people who were on the “Audsley slate”, supporting the #BitLessShit call for a change to a directly-elected Mayor, have since been selected themselves as Labour Party council candidates.

      All have been very quiet about their party’s opposition to the Mayoral switch, and few have publicly dared to criticise their party for its treatment of their colleague.

      We can all make choices, Anita. It’s just that some continue to keep making the wrong ones.

      • Ian Kierans says:

        Sadly quite true. But the same cannot be said about Mr Pelling.

        Albeit the candidates should all be thanked for standing and I hope they all do well, the reality may be that it does come down to Mr Pelling and Ms Shawcross.

      • Roman Bright says:

        It would make a fascinating diagram to lay out all the various names, making links between them, almost like a family tree. It’d certainly make me understand more – even this comment about Audsley introduces factors and influences I was not aware about.

        It would be fascinating. – like the instant of cutting through the brain of some ET figure which has descended from above – initially there is lots of pulsing and squirming activity until it realises its own futility ,dies off and rendering itself useless. That’s politics in Croydon.

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