By STEVEN DOWNES, Editor, Inside Croydon
In the end, it was all so sadly predictable. Yet even old cynics didn’t believe it was really going to happen in such a swift and shabby manner until they actually saw it all unfolding before their eyes at Wednesday night’s council budget-setting meeting.
But there we had it: red and blue, playing at being parliamentarians with their little set-piece speeches for a couple of hours, while Katherine Kerswell and her six-figure-salaried council execs sat back and let them have their fun. And when the council chief exec called the tune, the elected representatives (most of them, anyway) did exactly as they were told.
It’s been evident for many years, but the latest Punch and Judy show in the Town Hall Chamber underlined how little real influence our elected representatives hold, even Mayor Jason Perry.
The real power lies in the hands of people who never stand for election.
These are the people who like to call themselves “council officers”, many of whom were behind the borough’s financial crash, their mismanagement and ineptitude contributing to poorly negotiated outsourced contracts, a bullying culture and massive borrowing to fund ill-considered projects like Brick by Brick. The Penn Report confirmed all this.
And it was the same corps of civic servants, overseen by Kerswell and some shadowy Whitehall-appointed over-seers, who drafted up the latest council budget. Just like they’d drawn up the previous two budgets which were passed, but budgets which we are now told were full of errors and financial black holes.
This year’s budget has been months in the planning, mostly done in secret, between Kerswell, her finance director Jane West, and officials at the Department for Levelling Up. When Whitehall whistled, Mayor Perry danced their tune and requested the 15per cent Council Tax hike like the good Tory boy that he is.
We got the first glimpse of the coordination of that plan when West issued the Section 114 notice in November – the third time in two years that Croydon had declared itself bankrupt.
Except this S114 was different, unique, in that it predicted that the council would not be able to balance its books in the coming financial year, 2023-2024.
It was in West’s S114 notice that she revealed that Croydon needed a massive debt write-off from the government. A council finance director would not mention such an unprecedented, unthinkable move as a local authority debt write-off unless she knew there was a very strong chance one could be achieved.
And then there was that front-loading of Council Tax rises, a political punishment beating for the borough’s residents, to give Croydon Tories’ banausic Perry a glimmer of a chance of being more than a one-term Mayor. The Tories are planning a zero increase just for the year before the next elections.
Mayor Perry had made it clear a week earlier that his motto of “listening to Croydon” is just a blatant lie.
When Ken Towl and Rachael Baylis stood up to speak in the Town Hall Chamber when presenting the people’s petition on behalf of (then) 25,000 members of the public, Perry didn’t even have the common decency, good manners, or guts, to look them in the eye.
And when, late on Tuesday evening, less than 24 hours before the second budget-setting meeting was due to begin, he revealed that, despite the petitions, despite the democratic defeat he’d suffered the week before, he would make no changes, no concessions, to his budget, Perry simply emphasised that he really has no interest in listening to the people of Croydon. Or democracy.
And yesterday, after delivering to his political masters at Westminster just what they had required, he lied again. More than once.
“This is not a budget that I wanted to set,” said Perry after setting it, “but it is a budget that will help us to protect vital services for our residents.”
This is more routine disingenuousness from the man who is stripping another £36million from the council’s services in the next year, taking away all funding from the local voluntary sector while handing out more redundancy notices to council workers.
What was really surprising on Wednesday night, though, was quite how swift and abject was the complete capitulation of the Labour group of councillors.
Labour held the line on the first vote. “If the budget isn’t changed, Labour’s opposition to it won’t change,” was a key line from a good speech by Labour leader Stuart King. King called the Kerswell-Perry budget, “Unfair, unjust and unsupportable.”
The first vote saw a near-repeat of the previous week’s outcome: all the Tories – 34 – voting in favour of a 15per cent Council Tax hike, everyone else present – 36 – voting against.
There was still no budget, and the clock was ticking.
Yet less than two hours later, as the councillors emerged after a 40minute recess before a second vote, Callton Young, King’s deputy, was telling someone in a Town Hall corridor, “We’ll do what we can.” It was hardly a convincing call to fight on.
Young knew what Labour’s plan was. It amounted to running up the white flag, despite having a majority in the chamber and, in the 40,000 signatures from two public petitions, the kind of public mandate that Jason Perry has never had.
Croydon’s Labour councillors all opted to abstain on the second round of voting for the budget, allowing Perry’s 15per cent Council Tax hike to pass. “You can always depend on Croydon Labour… to let you down,” one serially disappointed party member told Inside Croydon as they watched the charade.
Croydon will now have the second-highest Council Tax in all of Greater London, with some of the worst services.
Unlike her two predecessors, CEO Kerswell avoids taking a starring role at these meetings, eschewing the wearing of strange robes and wing collars and waving a gavel about as the pompous Elvery and vain Negrini once did. For that small mercy, we should be grateful.
But because of the procedural demands of civic budget-setting, the council chief executive is obliged to conduct a poll vote on these occasions. It is here that we see Kerswell at her most school ma’am-ish, as if she is reading the register of the Lower IVth from the front of the classroom at a prim girls’ prep.
As she called the councillors by name to vote, one-by-one, Kerswell’s utter contempt for the people elected to be in the chamber was evident.
Kerswell issued an apology, dripping in insincerity, to one councillor after carelessly misreading their name.
Some of the Labour cadre did not attempt to disguise their anger that they were being compelled to abstain, leaving the way open for Perry’s budget to pass. Some sounded quite emotional. “A disgrace,” Karen Jewitt said.
Patricia Hay-Justice appeared furious. Janet Campell, one of Labour’s deputy leaders, also looked to be seething as she abstained.
Others sounded like they were trying to cover their arses for their spineless climbdown. “Under protest, I abstain,” said the always-thirsty Chris Clark.
When Kerswell came to Tamar Barrett, the young black councillor for Thornton Heath genuinely appeared to be in tears. Her word “Abstain” was heard in the chamber clearly enough.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear that,” said school ma’am Kerswell. “Can you say it again?” Kerswell said.
It seemed a deliberate attempt to be cruel. Barrett choked back her tears and repeated her vote.
Over the previous fortnight, Croydon Labour had piggy-backed on the Public Petition campaign and protests, even putting pressure on the local union branches to stage a march through the town centre last Saturday so that Councillor Young could have a favourable photo-op showing him as some kind of champion of the people.
Yet less than two hours after Labour leader King had told the Chamber, “If the budget hasn’t changed then neither has our opposition to it,” the councillor and his party colleagues withdrew their opposition and instead all abstained, letting the Tories vote through their unpopular, and anti-democratic, measures.
Perhaps Labour had come to share Jane West’s anxiety that the printing slot for Council Tax notices, booked for the early hours of Thursday morning, might be missed? And then where would we be, eh?
Even the Conservatives were surprised that King and his colleagues folded as soon as they did, expecting that the deadlock would have lasted longer.
“We were expecting them to go through three or four rounds of voting,” one councillor told Inside Croydon. “Take us up towards midnight at least.
“We were a bit taken aback when they caved in as soon as the second vote. Maybe they wanted to get down the pub?”
If that was Labour’s plan, then even that didn’t work. The second round of voting finished at 9.55pm. The Spread Eagle, the pub next to the Town Hall, recently changed its opening hours. Last orders there are now at 9.45 pm. Green Dragon it is then…
Whatever the motivation for Labour’s craven collapse at that point, it was clear that this was a pre-planned capitulation. They had a statement ready to go, appearing on social media barely two minutes after the somewhat world-weary Alisa Flemming, the civic mayor, declared the meeting closed. “It’s been a difficult evening. There isn’t much to say after that,” she said as she turned off her microphone.
In his mea culpa statement, King wrote, “The legal advice from the council’s independent Monitoring Officer makes it absolutely clear that we have a collective and individual responsibility to ensure that we do not act illegally.
“Embroiling the council in a protracted deadlock scenario, with the consequence that a legal budget would not be set is the last thing that residents of Croydon need at this time.
“Whilst Labour wholeheartedly disagrees with the 15per cent Council Tax rise, we could not in good conscience repeatedly block the setting of a legal budget and plunge the borough into a Tory-made financial crisis.”
Other Labour Party members were not so sure. “A wretched result,” said one party official. “Disappointed.”
Another Labour figure was clear that this outcome was entirely the making of the local party’s leadership. “They have sleep-walked into this position and have failed to stand up for the people of Croydon.
“They were happy to appear in photo-ops, but when crunch time came, they went missing in action. Voters will rightly question what the point of voting Labour is.”
And a veteran campaigner told Inside Croydon, “Not for the first time, our elected representatives have let us down.”
The consequence of this budget for both the reds and blues at Croydon Town Hall could be long-lasting. “Labour in Croydon have made themselves even more unelectable, which is some achievement given everything that had gone before.”
Others called for resignations, or cabinet-level sackings, and blamed King and Young, after they’d failed to anticipate Perry’s stick-in-the-mud obduracy and had also failed to come up with any kind of alternative budget or amendments.
In his speech on Wednesday, King had tried to stress how Perry, and the highly paid council officials, had made that impossible, blocking all opposition councillors from trying to find a more consensual way toward an agreed budget. “I wrote to the Mayor immediately after last week’s vote and said I was happy to make myself available to meet him to discuss how to pass a budget that avoided a Council Tax increase that he himself supposedly wants to avoid.
“I got no acknowledgement from the Mayor. No reply from the Mayor. No meeting with the Mayor.” Mayor Perry: not listening to Croydon.
King added that “there’s no desire to find consensus because there is no Conservative political advantage in securing a consensus”.
By Friday morning, there had been no sackings nor resignations from Labour’s front-bench positions, nor any resignations on principle by councillors. But the Council Tax notices are now all safely printed, ready for despatch. Which is nice.
How many residents actually opt not to pay their Council Tax in full, though, could yet disrupt Kerswell and Perry’s plans. “The People’s Petition campaign continues,” one of its organisers told Inside Croydon.
“The people of Croydon can be the opposition to this undemocratic council and the 15per cent Council Tax hike that Labour failed to be.”
Read more: ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ to start if 15% tax hike goes through
Read more: Here’s the Mayor and 33 Croydon Tory councillors who THREE times voted in favour of hitting you with a 15% Council Tax hike
SIGN THE PETITIONS HERE
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All a bunch of crooks, they have definitely lost our votes in Norwood, Kerswell shouldn’t be there as she has no idea what she is doing and getting her six figure salary under false pretences.
“Oh, the grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again”
Cllr Stuart King and his Labour councillors are the modern version of this!
Very well written article . Once again, proving that the only opposition in Croydon is Inside Croydon. I would think that the Labour “voting ” is unlikely to serve the Labour Party well in the forthcoming election. Not least as Croydon South is a seat that is being targeted by the Labour Party. No doubt Sir Keir Starmer will reflect on the action . Given Croydon South safe seat, the conservative party may find its comfortable majority reduced as many residents there will be paying the huge increase.
Where is the money ?1.5 billion is not petty cash. Has it been chased?
Let us, all hope that the Councillors actions are remembered at the ballot box by everyone who can vote.
Where is the accountability and acting in the best interests of those the councilors represent? The Tory councilor did not have my consent to vote the hike through. I note the novel assertion by the council of the services. Yet to see any evidence in 8 years of any service from the council. Not even a slice of bread during Co vid and as a stroke survivor am deemed to be at high risk. Or even a grab rail in 8 years A point I made at two of the Mayoral Hustling’s as a questioner – which included Mayor Perry..
There is another way of looking at this. It is a complete illusion that there is a substantive difference between Croydon Conservative and Labour Parties and that on essential issues of budget making and development they are in consensus. Dividing them into two parts is an act of futility as last Wednesday demonstrated since they are in practice the same.
Great article, Labours lost it all, never ever going to vote them in Croydon, I approached Karen Jewitt which she got my vote for comments on facebook, zero answer, I am going to sent her email instead asking why she and her collagues acted as Judas, what was the reason behind, is to save political career or seat?. My plan is simply now, I am cancelling my direct debit and setup a standing order for council tax payments, I will pay only 5% on the top I am paying now, happy to go to court and present my case to judge, what may happen at worst? pay penalties, interest? Pay from what if I am hardly can afford my new mortgage bill.
We have seen the suggestion of withholding payments and cancelling direct debits being made by several disgruntled residents.
We are seeking legal advice and will be providing a detailed guide on what next steps Council Tax-payers might take while minimising their risk to any legal action.
I believe defaulting can cause issues. Ultimately the council can take you to the County Court, where a CCJ can be issued. This will effect peoples credit ratings. They can also order that a said debt can be taken out you salary or benefit each month. In addition to the original debt you need to factor in court costs and penalties.
There’s never a “no risk” solution, Paul. But we’re working on something which may cause the council significant disruption while avoiding too onerous penalties, if any at all, for agile tax-payers.
Well you don’t have to pay, you will get a number of notices after this they will ask you to go to the court if you still refuse to pay – only this will cause serious implication to council as they won’t receive payments for let’s say 2 months until they are in legal position to issue court summon, even than you have a right to present the case to the judge rather than blindly pay tax plus penalties. You must ask to see the judge not just blindly pay the fine
This would be much appreciated. I await this article
It’s a sell out by Labour. I will never vote for them or the Conservatives at the next council elections. How many people on low incomes or elderly or disabled are going to default on their council tax payments, cause they cannot pay due to the other rises in their bills for power, food etc.
DLUHC was never going to change the local authority funding formula on the basis Croydon councils of various colours made some epically stupid financial choices.
This myth about poor deprived underfunded Croydon is exactly that.
There has been a stitch-up from the start in that the 15% increase is a condition from DLUHC for any debt write-off (reported in the budget documents as £540million) and the capitalisation needed to balance the 2023-2024 budget.
The Mayor, Kerswell and the rest have had their hands firmly tied from the get-go. There is no other solution, there are no other ways of doing things. It’s pay the increase or devastate services. The Tories know it. The lack of an alternative from Labour shows they know it, too, despite their performative hand-wringing two Council meetings running.
The Greens and LibDems can say and do whatever they want because, frankly, who cares?
Perry knows he’s not getting re-elected on the back of this nonsense, but I suspect he doesn’t care as he’ll get rewarded by his party.
None of this is fair. None of this is “right” but there really isn’t any viable alternative.
“I am cancelling my direct debit and setting up a standing order for Council Tax payments, I will pay only 5% on the top I am paying now.”
This crossed my mind.
In my case, if I paid my existing + 5% on an SO basis, the shortfall in the annual amount due wouldn’t manifest until after the last payment next February.
And as I would be paying 91.3% of my monthly obligation every month until then, I can’t see the council bothering to pursue the outstanding % in the interim and/ or until March next year.
At which point, like Labour, I would fold to avoid legal action; but I’d enjoy it in the meantime.
Interested to see what IC’s suggestion might be.
Liebour are traitorous and beyond contempt…..
I wonder how long it will be before all these supposed representatives ( cons/Liebour) of Croydon residents give themselves a pay rise of allowances of 44.96 % like what has happened at Westminster Council…….
Council executives got the budget through by threatening the Councillors with personal liability ” If any Member’s wilful misconduct in (persistently) refusing to set the budget is
found to have caused a financial loss to the Council, they may be liable to make
good such loss (i.e., misfeasance in public office). There could be a potential
breach of the Members’ Code of Conduct by bringing the Council into disrepute
and failing to act lawfully.”
Since when did the Council care about legality or prosecute anyone for misfeasance in public office…? Oh the irony…