CROYDON IN CRISIS: Jason Perry says he’s still hoping to get a Government write-off of a chunk of the borough’s borrowing, but otherwise he’s short on ideas or solutions. KEN LEE endured the latest ‘Question Time’ at Norbury, so that you didn’t need to bother
On perhaps the hottest night of the year so far, being part of the audience inside Norbury Baptist Church might have been one of the cooler places to seek refuge.
But it was not long before Croydon Mayor Jason Perry was getting all hot under the collar again.
This was the latest “Mayor’s Question Time”, the third since Perry was elected by a narrow majority in May 2022. It was probably the poorest attended yet. We counted around 60, and most of the audience – in a part of the borough where many residents are from BAME backgrounds – were white and, it is fair to say, from the older end of the age scale.
Numbers, though, were bolstered by the Mayor having some council officials accompany him and his trusted sidekick, Councillor Lynne Hale, together with a personal security detail of four police officers, who surely might have deployed their time better if some of them were patrolling the local streets than listening to Perry prattle on for nearly an hour and a half.
Those who have been patient enough, impervious enough, to have endured one or more of these events already will realise that Perry’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s always somebody else’s fault. Nothing to do with him, or his previous time in power when a Conservative council cabinet member (it was on Perry’s watch that Jo Negrini was hired by the council; and it was part of Perry’s brief that saw the vast overspend on Fisher’s Folly council offices – both decisions which can be seen as the beginnings of Croydon’s crisis).
Perry, for someone so insistent that he is in power, spends much of his time at these events underlining his absolute impotence, his utter uselessness.
He can’t do much about the borough’s missing bus shelters, he depends on local communities to help clean the streets and parks (services for which most are paying sky-high Council Tax), and he can’t re-open our public libraries, unless they are staffed by security guards instead of librarians.
In fairness to Perry, he told the audience last night that he has ensured that Norbury high street will get seven new bins, replacing some of the 1,000 bins that were removed from Croydon’s streets to make the work of Veolia, the council’s rubbish contractors, easier and cheaper… and making all our streets that much more littered and grimy.
Perry, the Mayor who on taking office said that things are going to get worse, is certainly delivering on that post-election promise. His QT events are carefully stage-managed. No one gets to ask a question unless it has been pre-submitted, approved, and Perry given a good chance to be properly briefed and to make the point that he wants to make.
Some, like veteran campaigner David White, managed to outflank this inherent control-freakery by going ahead and asking the question that they wanted to ask. Not that he got anything resembling a coherent answer.
But in the main, this event was going to stick rigidly to its pre-ordained script, whether you liked it or not.
Perry’s figures, therefore, cannot be checked or verified. He’s claiming that the borough’s stinking pile of debt is still £1.6billion, much as it was 12 months ago. Yet Jane West, the council’s director of finance whose job it is to crunch such mind-boggling numbers, recently published figures to suggest that the debt has been reduced, to £1.3billion.
At a time of soaring interest rates, such matters of £300million are important.
Especially given that last night Perry said that next year Croydon could be spending £70million just to pay off its interest and loan repayments. That’s up £4million on this year, and roughly 20% of the council’s total budget.
That’s £1 in every £5 spent by Croydon Council going to bankers, or to pay off the loan sharks in Whitehall who are running the Public Works Loans Board. That’s money that might otherwise pay for services to our residents, for meals on wheels for the elderly, to provide grants to the voluntary sector, children’s centres and nurseries… or even for a few more street bins to keep the place tidy.
Only some kind of debt write-off, authorised by the Treasury and Government ministers such as Michael Gove, to remove a chunk of the £1billion-plus debt, could radically reduce Croydon’s borrowing and so release some of the repayment monies to be used for something much more useful.
Perry told his Norbury audience that he was still hopeful that such a write-off from his Conservative Party colleagues at Westminster might still be possible.
But as he was saying this, so news was seeping out that Birmingham had become the latest council to issue a Section 114 notice, a trend begun by Croydon in 2020 whereby local authorities – Tory-run as well as Labour-controlled – admit that they can’t balance their budgets. As was observed by one sagacious figure in the Norbury audience, if Croydon gets a Government write-off, then Thurrock, Woking, Slough, Northumberland, Nottingham and now Birmingham will probably all want one, too. And they wouldn’t be the last.
But the write-off appears to be Perry’s best, last hope. That and yet more cuts to services next year, again.
With no other solution in sight, the Mayor who promised to “fix the finances” resorted to his usual script, blaming the previous Labour administration (which he called “a delinquent council”). Croydon was “broken financially and in terms of governance”.
Outside, White and a handful of comrades from the Croydon TUC had staged a demonstration against the 15% Council Tax hike Perry has imposed on residents and the swingeing cuts in services.
The Council Tax increase, Perry claimed, had been a “difficult” decision, one he had made in conjunction with the Government (so it was their fault was the subscript here).
“We are still in discussion with the Government about how we get the finances in order,” Perry said. Perry said he hoped there would be answers by the autumn. But then he’d said much the same in 2022, too.
Perry referred to his “Norbury Blitz”, a week or so’s effort by council contractors to give the long-neglected area a quick spruce and brush up, after it had been long-neglected by the council. Perry’s idea is that this will “bring things up to standard”, before “handing back to the local community”. So no real prospect of proper street-cleansing services any time soon, then.
He claimed he was improving housing. Residents of Regina Road had been balloted on a regeneration project. “We’re on a journey of improvement. It will take many years to repair the damage.”
He was questioned about Norbury Library being closed much of the time. Perry said he had agreed a new system called “Open Plus”, which would allow the library to open on Saturday mornings. The system will see the library operate with no librarians,although they will probably have a security guard instead. Welcome to Tory Britain 2023.
Perry is obviously an old-style, unapologetic Thatcherite, who likes to equate large-scale organisations with the running of a household budget. When White asked why Croydon had not joined forces with other bankrupted boroughs, like Thurrock and Woking, to call for a reverse the cuts to local government funding – figures are disputed, but some reckon Croydon has lost 75% of its Government grant since 2010 – Perry said, “This will not answer the problem Croydon has with unaffordable debt.
“It’s like a household budget, we have to live within our means.”
Even with advance notice of a question from trade unionist Bridget Galloway about the use of the “hardship fund” that the Mayor had created, after creating the hardship with his 15% Council Tax hike, asked about the 15% council tax rise, and requested figures about use of the “hardship fund”, Perry was unable to give any figures for the take-up.
All he could say was that “there are a number of mechanisms” for people in need to alleviate the impact of his increase. Which must be really reassuring for, say, a single parent struggling to feed their kids in the middle of a cost of living crisis, while facing threats from Croydon Council over unpaid Council Tax.
On crime and safety, Perry said an additional police inspector has been appointed for north Croydon. He didn’t manage to explain how this might impact the number of knife crimes committed in the area – the most recent occurring only last weekend.
Perry did admit that he was in favour of the use of artificial intelligence at the council to improve services. “Suppose anything’s better than no intelligence,” one unimpressed audience member grumbled audibly. The council was having conversations with major software companies. “We’re quite behind with our technology in Croydon at the moment,” said the Mayor of a council that has been spending millions on a digital department which has taken nearly three years to bring in replacement, “smart” bus shelters.
Oh, and Westfield? There’s always a Westfield question, even if there’s no Westfield – another initiative that was part of the then Councillor Perry’s brief when he was a cabinet member in 2010 to 2014.
“When will building start?” Perry was asked.
“It might be a couple of years before we see cranes,” the Mayor said.
Jason Perry’s term as elected Mayor is due to end in May 2026, though many reckon it’s as good as over already.
Read more: Do the decent thing: podcast’s latest call for Perry to quit
Read more: Public’s furious reaction to Perry’s Premium Council Tax hike
Read more: Perry is director of company handed £50,000 culture grant
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