CROYDON COMMENTARY: Why is our cash-strapped council wasting £1.4m over four years on extra allowances for cabinet members who have little power? Or spending another £400,000 over the same period on ‘support staff’ for councillors at a time it is making £31m in cuts to services for residents?
ANDREW PELLING (right) says it is time to axe the Town Hall luxuries
With cash-strapped Croydon Council looking for a further £31million in cuts while increasing its borrowing by £38million, the Tory Mayor needs to contribute some money from within the Town Hall to staunch the flow of red ink. Spending saved in Town Hall administration means fewer cuts to front-line services for residents.
Official figures obtained from the council via Freedom of Information requests show that, in reality, Croydon’s Conservative Mayoralty has not moved the dial on council staffing numbers.
Perhaps Mayor Perry’s 15% Council Tax increase has relaxed the money discipline in Katharine Street? The council boasts of post-Labour stability, but what we have got looks more like stasis.
The number of staff on the payroll at Croydon Council, as of April this year, is actually not much down since April 2019 – when Tony Newman was council leader and Jo Negrini was CEO.
Four years ago, according to the council’s own figures, they had 3,293 staff on the payroll.
By April 2023, that figure was down to 3,203.
Council staff reached a peak of 3,570 in 2020, during that unhappy Newman-Negrini partnership. Of those job cuts that have happened, most came under Labour immediately after Negrini and Newman left the council.
Figures for the number of highly paid directors and executive directors – who are often on more than £150,000 per year – are also informative.
In 2019, empire-builder Negrini had 24 – 20 at director level and four exec directors. In 2023, Katherine Kerswell has 22 employees at director and executive director level with seven of them – almost twice as many as Negrini – on the highest, executive-level salaries.
Whether it’s Labour or Conservative, no one has got a grip of the expensive budget line of six-figure salaried senior officials.
So while the number of frontline staff has gone down, the number of senior officials remains almost unchanged.
Further digging has discovered that, extraordinarily, £102,314 a year is spent on two staff to be “Cabinet Support Officers” to work for the eight councillors who are in Mayor Perry’s cabinet. It’s a bad habit carried on from Labour days.
What makes it worse is that, under the new mayoral system, these cabinet members have no decision-making roles.
These councillors are not MPs needing staff to help in dealing with hundreds of items of casework every week. The “Cabinet Support Officers” would be better used dealing directly with members of the public who have questions about housing, or Council Tax, or getting their bins emptied, rather than shielding well-paid cabinet councillors from contact with the public and running their diaries.
Mayor Jason Perry’s cabinet should be capable of running their own political lives. Cabinet members are paid to do this – almost £40,000 per year each; Lynne Hale, as Perry’s deputy mayor, is on £42,000 per year.
Council committee chairs, who used to have a great deal more to do than our powerless cabinet members, never had such Council Tax-funded support.
In all, Croydon Council’s powerless cabinet costs the taxpayers £355,606 per year, and that’s before National Insurance and costs. And for what?
Earlier this month, the Town Hall chamber saw the first meeting of full council for four months. Between October 11 this year and February 27 next year, there is to be only a single meeting of full council.
Cabinet meets more frequently, but questions from opposition councillors – including the LibDem and Greens as well as Labour – are very limited, with no follow-up questioning allowed. At full council, almost all the questions posed are answered by the Mayor. There’s not much accountability for Croydon’s cabinet members. They could cut the number of cabinet members by half.
The number of councillors could be cut, too.
Over the four-year term, Croydon councillors cost the borough’s residents more than £5million. At 70, Croydon has the highest number of councillors of any London borough.
The number of councillors has not been adjusted to take account of how Croydon has concentrated power in a Mayor who is supposedly directly accountable to voters by a borough-wide vote.
Even when the council had nightly committee meetings, leaders of party groups used to struggle to find jobs for all their councillors. For some councillors, weeks can pass by without the need to attend a meeting at the Town Hall. Some can wait for years to speak at a full council meeting.
Instead, most of our elected councillors spend many hours delivering leaflets for their political parties or door-knocking. As Inside Croydon has often stated, they amount to a Council Tax-funded leaflet delivery cult.
The two main political parties in Croydon also take large deductions – “imposts” – from the councillors’ allowances, a subsidy of the political parties. Council Tax-payers in a bankrupted borough should not be funding political parties in this way. This money should be spent on services for residents.
The London Assembly, representing a global city of 9million people, has just 25 members and is more collegiate and constructive than our local council of 70.
Coming down to 25 council members in Croydon might well refresh a stale Town Hall where, other than some of the scrutiny under Councillor Rowenna Davis and questions from the three minority party councillors, accountability is broken. And that is dangerous in a council cursed by previous compromised governance.
A special case could be made to the Local Government Boundary Commission of England to cut out more than 40 councillors on the grounds of urgent need to save costs, renewal of democracy, adjustment to having a directly elected mayor, and already diverging electoral number inequality.
Assumptions about overall and ward elector numbers in the 2018 boundary review have proven misplaced. Lower-than-expected elector numbers show that Croydon has not seen its economy and tax base grow as much as was predicted – another impact of the failed Westfield development. There is a 2.5% shortfall.
At the 2018 review, the Conservatives did suggest coming down to 60 councillors. Labour opposed that change.
With real services being cut and the accountability process already compromised, luxuries that benefit political parties and not residents need to go.
Read more: Town Hall staff braced for £31m more cuts and job losses
Read more: Perry says there’s no alternative to his budget. But there’s lots
Read more: ‘There is no solution in sight’ warns council’s finance chief
- Andrew Pelling was a Labour councillor from 2014 to 2022, when he was expelled from the party. He has previously been a Croydon councillor, London Assembly Member and MP for the Conservatives
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