CROYDON IN CRISIS: Facing threats from the council lawyer, auditors and even Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, some councillors are determined to vote ‘in the interests of residents’ tonight, also knowing that they could bring down Mayor Perry. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
It will be a case of “who blinks first” in a Mexican stand-off at the Town Hall tonight, with Tory Mayor Jason Perry stubbornly refusing to listen to the 26,000-plus Croydon residents who have signed petitions or to the majority of elected councillors who last week voted down his 15per cent Council Tax hike.
Perry is bringing forward exactly the same budget proposals, including his “punishment beating” 15per cent Council Tax hike, to tonight’s meeting claiming, in arch-Thatcherite style and disingenuously, “There is no alternative”.
Croydon is unique among English local authorities that have elected mayors in that Tory Perry is not backed up by a majority of councillors in the Town Hall Chamber. It leaves him needing the support of other parties to get his proposals through, or for enough opposition councillors to sit on their hands and abstain come the vital votes.
Inside Croydon understands that after a four-hour meeting last night, the Labour group, with 34 councillors the largest single group at the Town Hall, has resolved to oppose the Mayor’s budget as they did last week, despite heavy-duty threats, including from their own party officials.
Labour will be one down tonight, with Rowenna Davis, the Waddon councillor and Scrutiny chair, on maternity leave after giving birth to a baby girl at the weekend. But they appear to be ensuring the best possible turn-out, with one councillor flying back from a business trip to Sweden this morning to attend the vote.
And as last week, they are likely to be joined in opposition by the two Green and sole LibDem councillors.
It has also been suggested that new objections to Perry’s “punishment beating” budget could be raised, including the fact that even this Whitehall-approved proposal fails to be “balanced”.
The Mayor’s request for the government to write off £540million of “toxic debt” has not yet been approved. Last month Jane West, the council’s finance director, told a staff briefing that this leaves a “£38million hole” in the Perry’s budget, made up of interest repayments that will be due without the half-billion write off.
The council meets from 6.30pm tonight for a second attempt to pass its 2023-2024 budget before the government’s March 11 deadline. The only full budget proposal on the table is from Mayor Perry.
And Perry has recruited the council’s officials and auditors to help in bullying councillors into submission over his 15per cent Council Tax hike.
On the Monday before the first budget meeting, all Croydon’s councillors were served with a seven-page legal warning letter from the council Monitoring Officer, Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense.
This was backed up this week with another warning, this time from auditors Grant Thornton.
“The Monitoring Officer didn’t actually use the word ‘surcharged’,” one Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon, “but that’s what it reads like.”
Prior to 2000, councillors who unlawfully spent public funds or caused loss to a local authority through misconduct could be surcharged to recover public money. Famously, councillors in Clay Cross were surcharged in 1973 for refusing to increase council rents, and Liverpool and Lambeth councillors were surcharged in 1985 in a dispute with government over the rates. In all these cases, there was a Conservative government at the time and the surcharges were applied against Labour-run local authorities.
In his letter to councillors, Lawrence-Orumwense wrote, “In the signed acceptance of office declaration, all elected members agree to fulfil their duties as councillors to the best of their ability and judgement.
“Members also agree to abide by the Members’ Code of Conduct which provides that ‘… on all occasions: I act lawfully’ and ‘I do not bring my authority into disrepute’.
“These declarations apply to the duty on Members to set a lawful budget.”
Further delays in agreeing the budget, Lawrence-Orumwense warned, would prevent the issuing of Council Tax bills, create a multi-million-pound shortfall in the council’s monthly income and force it to borrow yet more money.
Here, the council’s senior lawyer threatened councillors with prosecution for misfeasance in public office if they voted down the budget.
But as last week’s Monitoring Officer briefing failed to bludgeon Labour, Green and LibDem councillors into submission in the Town Hall vote, this week Perry and Kerswell have had another warning letter distributed through the Town Hall pigeon holes.
This was from Paul Dossett, a partner at Grant Thornton, the council’s auditors – the people who in 2020 issued the Report In The Public Interest which brought a halt to the reckless administration of Tony Newman and his numpties.
Dated March 3, Dossett’s letter was addressed to Kerswell and West, and is marked “Commercial in confidence“, but has been published on the council website this afternoon.
Members, Dossett wrote, meaning councillors, “must take full account of, and responsibility for, previous poor decisions as a context for future decisions”.
And he doubled-down on the Lawrence-Orumwense threats: “As set out in the Monitoring Officer’s letter failing to pass the budget will not only be unlawful, if would make a bad financial position worse and damage the council’s reputation even further.”
But herein lies the nub of the matter, something which Perry and Kerswell know only too well. If the budget is not passed in time, then the government – which has been pulling the strings in Croydon since late 2020 – will be obliged to send in commissioners. All councillors, and Mayor Perry, will lose their positions, and their allowances (an immediate saving of £1.5million per year).
And, if previous precedent in other local councils where similar interventions have been carried out are followed, the chief executive will also lose their job, and in Kerswell’s case, the £192,000 salary that goes with it.
“When you look at it like that,” one Katharine Street source said today, “then it’s hard to see any downside.”
But that was before last night’s Labour group meeting. The lengthy discussions debated whether to oppose the budget or abstain, with a large number of councillors arguing flatly to oppose.
However, there was also communication from senior officials within Labour, with the threat of mass expulsions from the party for any councillors who opposes the budget tonight.
To their credit, some Croydon Labour councillors appear ready to take that risk, arguing that backed with the 26,000 petition signatures, they have a stronger public mandate to oppose the 15per cent Council Tax hike than Mayor Perry has ever had.
One Labour councillor who attended last night’s meeting told Inside Croydon, “There was a concern of a surcharge being imposed, though few think that’s really likely.
“I shall need to vote as one who has the best interests of residents in mind, and not just my own.”
THREAT 1: The thinly-veiled attempt from the Monitoring Officer to bully councillors over the way they vote
THREAT 2: How auditors Grant Thornton doubled down on the council lawyer’s threat
Read more: 37-34: Mayor’s 15% Council Tax hike rejected in budget vote
Read more: The solution to Perry’s finance problem: Fund Croydon Fairly
Read more: If council budget fails to pass, expect a long night on Mar 8
SIGN THE PETITIONS HERE
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Perfect time for Labour councillors to make amends, stand up for Croydon residents and put their money (allowances) where their mouth is.
The government t still havent responded to the petition to them. It has reached the 10000 needed. What are the repercussions for not holding a referendum for the excessive council tax hike. The wording says must have referendum. Not maybe. And it states that an alternative budget must be made up also. What are the repercussions does this make the budget unlawful. “These declarations apply to the duty on Members to set a lawful budget”
I feel for the councillors that want to vote against this. I hope integrity reigns amidst for low down dirty threats.
Hopefully Croydon’s Labour Councillors will be de facto surcharged. We all know they bankrupted the place, and half the Newman cabinet are still on their benches, so it means that those responsible for the mess actually pay (which is what we all really want). Great news!
What of the underfunding from government and 1b inherited debt. There are many players here. As esther and rias letter said the funding calculation needs to be looked at. This is systemic, classist and political
Funny how not voting through Tory robbery and blackmail is met with threats of surcharging, but bankrupting the borough goes unpunished.
Will Croydon Labour councillors stand up for the people they are paid to represent or cave in to idle threats from an ex-estate agent and the diktat of that oily heap of shit, Keir Starmer?
Time will tell
Why is keir starmer doing this??
he wants to look prime ministerial.
More chaos. When will people just get on and do a decent job of running the goddamn council.
When people stop voting for the Tories, Moya. They’re not to be trusted.
Croydon residents should not have to burden the cost of years of fuck-wit decisions made at Croydon Council and it’s councillors. And one of the biggest fuck-wits with zero ability to see beyond his own stupor is Mayor Jason Perry. He sat like a nodding dog on the back shelf of Tony Newman’s Labour administration. Perry saw a lot and acted on none of it. He’s now a fucking liability who’s more interested sniffing Michael Gove’s backside.
Seems like the Budget has finally passed. 34 Tory votes in favour. 3 against (2 Greens and the one Lib Dem). 33 Labour abstentions. Probably always going to end like this, I suppose….
who is Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense? from what i understand he likes being called a senior lawyer and all the grand-standing but when it comes to lawyering, he runs a mile. Instead, he likes to out-souces it all, at huge expenses to the council, to private sector lawyers who know what they are doing.
is Stephen yet another lame-duck appointment at Croydon Council? I think so.
So, the learned legal advice came from a failed estate agent [of “let’s sue IC” fame] and an accountant. They seem to have dreamed up a new category of Joint Enterprise with their ‘responsibility for previous poor decisions’ made by others; but then Croydon has such a good record in that area of the law, ever since Bentley and Craig.