Councillors who presided over Croydon’s financial ruin could soon be honoured by the very borough they helped bankrupt, thanks to the council’s flawed constitution. By Town Hall correspondent, KEN LEE
Tony Newman, Alison Butler, Paul Scott, Simon Hall and other now ex-councillors who were in charge when council’s finances crashed in 2020 are among those in line to be made honorary aldermen or alderwomen of Croydon.
All they need is the nod from Stuart King, the current leader of the Labour group at the Town Hall.
The title “alderman” dates back to Anglo-Saxon England, where the elders exercised administrative or judicial functions in a shire or borough on behalf of the monarch.
The title was later used to designate the chief magistrate in a county before morphing into council membership in the 1800s – membership based on appointment by councillors rather than elected by voters.
The office was abolished in England by the Local Government Act 1972, apart from the City of London.
Today, it is mostly an honorific title typically granted by a council to its former councillors for long or distinguished service.
In Croydon, eligibility for honorary alderman or alderwoman status is set out in Para 6.1 of section 4A of council’s constitution.
It can be awarded to:
Former Members of the London Borough of Croydon, nominated by the Leader of a political group represented on the Council, who have either:
(i) rendered eminent service in their capacity as Member, considering the contribution that they have made to the borough, including roles served and how their service rendered is above and beyond that expected of all Members; or
(ii) served a period of twelve years on the Council
Admission to the ranks of honorary alderman or alderwoman takes place at a Special Council Meeting in the Town Hall Chamber, where recipients receive a shiny scroll from the (ceremonial) Mayor, dressed in full Trumptonesque robes, followed by some cheap prosecco and nibbles in the Mayor’s Parlour afterwards. Trebles all-round!
The last such meeting took place on December 3, 2018 – a little more than six months after that year’s local elections. Then, 11 who had stood down as councillors at those elections the previous May were granted the honour.
Two further alderpersons were added in May 2019, when Val Shawcross was inducted into the order some 20 years after she’d stood down as the Labour leader, and Donald Speakman, the former Purley councillor who was somehow “forgotten” after he was “retired” by his Conservative colleagues in 2018, was also given the honour.
Currently, the council’s website shows no Special Council Meeting proposed between now and Christmas (indeed, there’s not even due to be a full meeting of the council again until December 14… and they wonder why the elected Mayor is known as “Part-time Perry”?). And significantly, nor is there any meeting scheduled for the Civic Mayoralty and Honorary Freedom Selection Committee, where such matters would usually be discussed before announcements are made.
All councillors who have served 12 years or more can expect to be put forward automatically for honorary alderman or alderwoman status by their group leader when they step down from the council or are voted off it. The award is made on the understanding that those receiving it will not be seeking re-election to the council in the future.
So nomination by King should be a mere formality for long-serving and respected former councillors who retired at May’s local elections, such as Pat Clouder and Bernadette Khan.
Similarly, time-serving Tory councillors such as Steve O’Connell, who stood down in 2021, plus Tim and Helen Pollard, who moved away from Croydon last May, might expect to be nominated as a matter of course by Mayor Perry from the Conservative side.
For King, though, other decisions are much less straightforward.
Long-serving Labour councillors who would normally qualify for honorary alderman status include former leader Newman and his cabinet member for finance, Hall, who led the borough to bankruptcy, and still live in a parallel universe where they think they did nothing wrong.
Newman spent 27 years as a councillor. Hall was a councillor for 14 years. Both were forced to resign in disgrace and have had their membership of the Labour Party “administratively suspended” for almost two years.
Inside Croydon predicts that there is little prospect of King nominating Newman or Hall to be aldermen.
But the two other members of Newman’s Gang of Four, Butler, the former deputy leader and cabinet member for housing, and her husband, Scott, might be expecting to join the ranks of alderman or alderwoman.
Butler oversaw the disaster that was Brick by Brick, which contributed so much to the council’s financial calamity. The mismanagement of the wholly-owned council company was identified for particular criticism in the Penn Report. It was during Butler’s time in charge of housing that the Regina Road scandal occurred, too.
Scott dominated the council’s planning committee for six years – only stepping down as its chair when his best mate, Newman, elevated him to the cabinet role to oversee planning policy, which had previously been part of his wife’s portfolio.
It is a widely-held view in Katharine Street that Scott’s bombastic and patronising chairing of planning meetings, and his determination to concrete over the borough’s green spaces and replace family homes with ugly blocks of flats, was why so many residents supported proposals for a directly elected mayor and then voted for Perry.
Perry’s first act on taking office as the borough’s executive mayor was to bin SPD2 – Scott’s magnum opus on planning policy for the borough which was widely viewed as a free-for-all for profit-hungry developers.
Following the council’s financial collapse in November 2020, which was preceded by Newman and Hall’s abrupt resignations as leader and cabinet member, Scott and Butler managed to hang around at the Town Hall like a bad smell for another 18 months, divested of any formal responsibility, but still drawing down their councillor allowances and taking part on group meetings with Labour colleagues. At the time that both held cabinet or equivalent roles under Newman, Scott and Butler were between then receiving more than £90,000 in council allowances for their part-time roles.
They did, at least, decide that seeking re-selection from Labour Party members, or re-election by residents, was probably not a great idea. One-quarter of Labour’s councillors from the Newman era opted not to run for election in May 2022.
Scott and Butler remain members of the Labour Party and are thought to expect to be made alderpersons, having each spent more than 12 years on the council.
Just as problematic for King will be whether to put forward any councillors who served fewer than 12 years but held positions of responsibility under Newman.
This includes Hamida Ali – Newman’s protégé who succeeded him as leader of the council with King as her loyal deputy.
Ali was a councillor in Woodside (the same ward where Newman and Scott were councillors) for just eight years, serving as cabinet member for “safer Croydon and communities” before succeeding Newman as leader when he walked away from the financial mess he had created.
Councillors who serve less than 12 years are eligible if, in the opinion of their group leader, they rendered “eminent service”.
Newman’s circle remains as tight as ever – the discredited ex-council leader, together with his partner Louis Szpera (a parliamentary assistant to MP Steve Reed OBE), Butler and Scott, Watson and Paul Smith, another former councillor, have recently returned from a holiday together in sunny Spain. Trebles all-round!
Croydon’s flawed council constitution fails to define or elaborate on what might count as “eminent service” or identify which roles might be deemed worthy of honorary alderman status where a councillor has served fewer than 12 years.
Nor does it identify how service that might be deemed to be “above and beyond” that expected of all councillors might be measured, especially given that all councillors receive a basic allowance and those who hold more senior positions receive additional, and often hefty, special responsibility allowances.
Nor is there any provision in the constitution to explicitly block a time-serving councillor from being appointed an alderman or alderwoman even if they bring the council into disrepute.
“Basically it’s at the whim of Jason Perry or Stuart King as to who they put forward to be an alderman or alderwoman,” a Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon.
“It’s hard to see how anyone who was in Newman’s cabinet and collectively took the decisions that bankrupted the borough could be nominated.”
A key part of Newman’s statement in response to the publication of the Penn Report by Inside Croydon sought to emphasise collective decision-making on the part of members of his cabinet.
“As leader, Hamida worked round the clock to try to repair the council’s finances after they had been wrecked by Newman and Hall,” our source said.
“But you don’t reward an arsonist for putting out a fire they helped to start.”
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