Tonight’s scrutiny committee meeting will also see significant changes in approach, and a small crack appearing in the granite-like control of power held by Croydon’s political duopoly, reports WALTER CRONXITE
More than two years after the slum-like conditions in Croydon council flats at Regina Road were exposed by a television news report, housing in the borough is to get a dedicated scrutiny committee.
Tonight’s meeting of the scrutiny and overview committee at the Town Hall, the first of the 2023-2024 municipal year, has the routine task of laying out its work schedule for the coming year, and that of its various sub-committees.
Scrutiny already has children and young people and health and social care sub-committees, and until late last year it also had a streets, environment and homes sub-committee.
But as an official report presented to tonight’s meeting lays out, the workload of the streets, environment and homes group had become dominated by the appalling discoveries at Regina Road and the work conducted since to improve the plight of council tenants.
“Following media reports of the housing conditions at council-owned properties on Regina Road… the work programme of the streets, environment and homes sub-committee has predominantly focussed [sic] on housing issues at the expense of issues relating to its streets and environment brief,” the report notes.
A temporary sub-committee dealing solely with housing was established last October, one of the first innovations from new scrutiny committee chair Rowenna Davis. And now that trial period is to be extended, for at least two years.
The trial period revealed “there was a lot more work to do on the improvement journey, and the budget work highlighted that there was a lot more to be done on temporary and emergency accommodation, both in terms of the service we were offering and the huge cost it was giving us”.
Tonight’s committee meeting also has to approve a proposal to “waive the requirement for the seats on the sub-committees to be allocated in line with the overall political balance of the council”.
As Croydon Council goes, this is what passes for radical, and it reflects the arrival 12 months ago of three councillors who are not part of the borough’s red-blue duopoly.
During their first year as councillors, Greens Esther Sutton and Ria Patel and LibDem Claire Bonham have had justifiable cause to complain that they have been frozen out of the Town Hall decision-making process by the 67 other Tory and Labour councillors.
Tonight’s resolution sees a chink appearing in that duopolistic control.
Davis’s main scrutiny and overview committee has six members, three Tory and three Labour. It was one of the blizzard of governance recommendations that followed the council’s financial collapse in 2020 that its scrutiny committee should in future be chaired by someone drawn from the largest opposition group.
Since May 2022, Croydon has been technically “NOC” – no overall control, with 34 Labour councillors and 33 Tories, plus three Green and LibDems. Given that Jason Perry is a Conservative, Labour has been given the chair of the scrutiny committee, a role taken on with some plaudits by first-term councillor Davis.
A Tory councillor, Richard Chatterjee, chairs the children and young people’s sub-committee (which is made up of four Conservative and four Labour councillors), and Labour’s Eunice O’Dame chairs the health and social care sub-committee (three Labour, three Tories).
But this is where things get interesting.
The seven-member streets and environment scrutiny sub-committee is now to have a Green councillor as its chair. Patel will preside over three Labour and three Conservative committee members.
It makes Patel the first Green Party councillor ever to chair a Croydon council committee, and puts the final-year degree student in line to claim to be among the youngest to do so in the history of the borough.
Leila Ben-Hassel, Davis’s deputy chair of scrutiny, is put in the hot seat by being given the chair’s role for the new homes sub-committee, which has seven members, with Liberal Democrat Bonham breaking up the red-blue duopoly.
“Scrutiny is making an effort to strengthen and improve itself,” Davis told Inside Croydon today.
“Everyone agrees that the council has a long way to go before its housing service is properly fit for Croydon’s residents, so on a cross-party basis, we are extending our homes sub-committee for another two years.
“This will give members a chance to question authorities on important issues, like how Regina Road is being redeveloped for residents and how we can reduce the unacceptable suffering and sky-high costs in temporary and emergency accommodation.
“We are also proposing to make more space for a diversity of views and voices on scrutiny.
“The Greens and the LibDems will have seats at the table as we waive the usual political balance rules, and an extra Conservative vice-chair has been added to make sure that every committee has a chair and vice-chair of opposing parties.”
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