Another referendum: an executive mayor for Croydon?


By - Thursday 30th June, 2016

The EU referendum is barely behind us, but another vote may soon be afoot in Croydon. Robert Ward assesses the options


Image by Jack Tindale, used with permission.

You don’t have one for years and then two come along one after the other. Not a prospect that fills many of us with joy perhaps, but a group including Croydon’s two Conservative MPs is proposing a referendum on the idea of an elected executive mayor for Croydon, combining the current, largely ceremonial, mayoral role with the council leader. If sufficient signatures can be gathered to support the proposal, we will have our very own Croydon referendum.

Under the current system, control of the council is determined by the number of councillors elected across Croydon’s wards. Some wards elect three councillors, some two. The party with the majority of councillors elects a council leader from among their number, who largely runs the show. The opposition party has limited impact. The argument for change is that this model drives division.

Since large parts of the north of the borough are solidly Labour, and of the south strongly Tory, control of the council is determined by a few marginal wards. The temptation for the ruling party, whoever that may be, is to favour the wards that solidly support them, strongly favour the marginal wards to keep themselves in power, and neglect the wards that always support their opponents regardless.

Were the current system working well, I would be reluctant to change

It’s not hard to find at least the perception of bias, no matter your political persuasion. Under the Tories, the north of the borough claimed that their streets were dirtier than those in the south. Now under Labour, street cleaning frequency has been cut in areas mostly in the south and boosted in areas mostly in the north and marginal wards. Charges for previously free garden waste recycling have been introduced, a measure seen as penalising the south.

A mayor elected from across the entire Croydon electorate reduces the temptation for biased behaviour. Every vote counts equally, in contrast to the current system where the votes that count are in the marginal wards. It is a persuasive argument.

Were the current system working well, I would be reluctant to change. Change costs money: not just the relatively modest cost of running the referendum, but changing the organisational model costs too. My guess though is that these costs are modest in the context of the council’s overall budget, especially since the current model results in one individual running the show, so there’s little change there; but this needs to be clarified.

This has the added benefit of giving us a leader whose name we are more likely to know

My perception is, however, that our current model is not functioning well. Council meetings consist of the opposition asking questions challenging the ruling party’s decisions. It’s what they’re there for. Answers, though, are rarely forthcoming. Classic yah-boo politics is the order of the day. If you don’t believe me, watch the recordings available online. Memories of the previous Conservative administration suggest that if the party roles were reversed, the behaviour would not be radically different.

An elected mayor has the added benefit of giving us a leader whose name we are more likely to know (we will vote by name rather than party). As an obvious ‘Mr or Ms Croydon’ it would up our profile in the wider world, no bad thing if, as we hope, Croydon is on the verge of a leap forward after years of under-performance.

Opposition to the proposal has so far mostly come from Labour supporters, understandable since they are in power under the current system. They might be less opposed if things were to change at the next council election in 2018.

From what I have seen so far, this is a good idea

Their arguments so far don’t really hold water. They consist of accusations that it is Gavin Barwell looking for a job for himself (going for the man not the ball), claims that the council is devolving budgets to ward level anyway (they are, but the money is tiny), and that the council does not favour the north and marginals over the south (hard to prove conclusively one way or the other). However, on the bias aspect, both parties accuse each other of bias so the perception is there and perceptions alone are important.

The proposers need to make a case for change, and there will be new arguments one way or the other that need to be considered, but from what I have seen so far, this is a good idea, worthy of consideration. I urge all Croydon people to look carefully at the proposal and the arguments for and against. I am minded to put my name to the petition.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Peter Staveley

    There is a third option that you have ignored, namely returning to the Committee System.

    Since the Localism Act this option is now available to Croydon council, previously it was available only to district councils with populations under 85,000 people.

    Committee system councils make most decisions in committees, which are themselves made up of a mix of councillors from all political parties. These councils may have one or more overview and scrutiny committees but are not required to.

    Also more of the important decisions will be referred to Full Council, which would then give a real purpose to full council meetings.

    What that means is that most (if not all councillors) would serve on one or more committees and each councillor would get a vote in each detailed decision and have a say in why they support one option over another.

    Sure, the composition of each committee will broadly reflect the political make-up of the borough so, in theory, the majority group would always win. But with more councillors to have to whip and persuade of the arguments it would be hard work for the whips to ensure that all councillors in their group remain on-side for that particular issue. Currently, all that is in the control of the Cabinet Member and the Leader only has to persuade that one Cabinet Member.

    Also with less power being in the hands of one person (such as an elected Mayor or the leader of the majority group) then there would be a need for all political parties to have to work together and more consultation between the councillors and the voters.

    An elected Mayor would tend to favour the views of the party that they are a member of rather than the needs of the borough as a whole.

    Ultimately we need a system that brings power back to the people (i.e. the voters) and in my opinion having an elected Mayor would take even more power from the voters.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Peter. I was not excluding other options and have not yet myself been convinced that an elected Mayor is the right way to go, just that we need to hear the arguments.

      Regarding your proposal, how might this be brought into effect? Is it just a Council decision or is it a referendum similar to the elected Mayor process? If it is a Council decision how might they be influenced on this?