Is this how a council is meant to function?


By - Thursday 11th August, 2016

Heavily implying that the answer is ‘no’, Michael Swadling reports on a very familiar scene in the town hall


Croydon Council has often been accused of ‘Punch and Judy politics’ with both main parties using council meetings to act out a mini House of Commons, rather than debating local issues in Croydon. Is this how a council is meant to function?

On Monday 18th July, the council held a full council meeting at Croydon Town hall. Trying to enter the public gallery, I was shocked to see that we were going into an overflow room (and I counted three total rooms being used for this purpose) as the gallery was already full.

The reason for the high attendance was the Save Shirley campaign group turning up with over a hundred local residents worried about their green suburb’s future. The meeting set off in an upbeat fashion, thanking many long-serving local government officers who have helped the council.

The new mayor handled the meeting extremely well, pressing for straight questions and clear answers

The new mayor, councillor Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, chaired the excellent ‘Croydon Question Time’ of public questions at the start of the meeting. The mayor, whose role in council meetings is to act as an impartial chair, handled this extremely well. Throughout the session he pressed the public and, more importantly, the cabinet councillors to give quick and to-the-point questions and answers.

Many of the questions came from the Save Shirley campaign. The deputy leader of the council, who is also the the cabinet member for homes, regeneration and planning, councillor Alison Butler, answered most of these questions. It is fair to say that the cabinet councillors’ answers did little to pacify the view of those that I was in the room with. This is understandable given the amazingly dismissive attitude that councillor Butler displayed.

The residents of Shirley, like Croydon as a whole, are mostly hardworking and community-focused. I know this as someone who lived and went to school in Shirley. However, there was real and understandable anger at a council which has ridden roughshod over their area with a ‘Local Plan’ that is proposing to dramatically change the demographics and feel of the town.

Both parties appeared more interested in point-scoring than solving problems

Two answers underlined the attitude. When asked about traffic problems, cabinet member for transport and environment councillor Stuart King didn’t know the difference between the A232 and A23. In fairness, I suspect that he misheard the question – but it was in the context of building more homes in Shirley. Therefore, at the very least, he should have clarified with the (public) questioner which road they were talking about. Councillor Butler drew great surprise from the crowd when she agreed for the first time to meet with the locals to answer questions. One wonders how it is even conceivable that such major changes can be considered in Shirley without the £43,000 per year deputy leader holding a dozen public meetings in the area.

Continuing the theme of being more interested in point-scoring than solving problems, Conservative councillor Maria Gatland asked Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Learning, councillor Alisa Flemming, about the plans that the council had for improving attainment of white working class boys. Councillor Flemming responded instead on the attendance of black Afro-Caribbean boys. The exchange went on and underlined the desire of both sides to play to the crowd. Croydon Council would expect any school to have a plan to improve pupil performance among low performing groups. It appears clear that the council does not hold itself to the same standard. I would expect that most residents of Croydon would expect someone on a £38,000 a year allowance to be able to set aside point-scoring and instead answer such an important question.

One solution would be to follow the mayor’s lead

The whole meeting continued on this theme: we didn’t see councillors debating the issue of Croydon, instead we saw politicians point- scoring. Given the lack of local media coverage of these meetings they were mainly doing this for their own party members and not even the voters of Croydon. What is happening in Shirley, with a set of (Labour) cabinet councillors who have no interest in or knowledge of the area, and who haven’t (at the time of writing) held public meetings and met residents, is appalling.

The bright spot was Mayor Trakas-Lawlor showing some true independence and trying to get questions and expedient answers from all sides. We can only hope that ruling and opposition councillors alike follow his lead and show an interest in asking and answering serious questions.

Michael Swadling

Michael Swadling

Michael works in the IT Industry for and has lived in Croydon all of his life. He has been a governor in local schools for over twelve years. During the referendum he was the Croydon Area Manager for Vote Leave, Now promoting Classical Liberalism and Freedom. Visit Croydon Constitutionalist for events and articles on Classical Liberalism in our area http://croydonconstitutionalists.uk/. Former UKIP candidate for Croydon North and Croydon Council.

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  • Mario Creatura

    Hi Michael,

    I agree with some, but not all, of your interesting article. I’m the Conservative Chief Whip on the Council and can tell you that this meeting is a brand new format, and a considerable improvement on the way the meetings functioned in the past. Both sides were respectful and calm in asking and answering questions. The debate motions were orderly and well-reasoned in most cases.

    You specifically refer to Cllr Gatland asking Cllr Flemming about the poor academic attainment of white working class boys. In what way is that ‘playing to the crowd’? She was asking a very pertinent question about a subject that needs strong strategic leadership from the Council. You can watch that exchange here: https://croydon.public-i.tv/core/share/open/webcast/0/0/560/234472/0/0.

    You miss out a large proportion of the meeting, the debate motions, where the councillors debated whether we should cut the total number of councillor (see here: http://croydonconservatives.com/news_search_results_detail.asp?StoryNo=1558) and where I and three other councillors debated the perceived increase in hate crime in the borough since the EU referendum (see here: http://croydonconservatives.com/teams_blog.asp?BlogID=1901&WardID=27). Both were conducted politely but with passion, and that’s the important point that many don’t seem to appreciate: being human means that you want your side to win, whether it’s football or politics, point-scoring in and of itself is no bad thing. The issue comes when it becomes so partisan that there is no intellectual basis behind the scrutiny. As long as there is a genuine reason for asking the question (as with Cllr Gatland asking about the Pupil Premium money going unspent http://croydonconservatives.com/news_search_results_detail.asp?StoryNo=1562 you can watch the exchange here https://croydon.public-i.tv/core/share/open/webcast/0/0/560/234472/0/0) then why shouldn’t both Labour and Conservatives argue with passion about their various interests? That is, after all, what we were all elected for.

    • Michael Swadling

      Mario hi

      I have missed out parts of the meeting as I wanted to keep some interest for the reader!

      I would say the back and forth between Councillors Gatland and Flemming did feel like rather a lot of point scoring, however I would be happy to fully conceded your point that the onus was on councillor Flemming as the responsible Cabinet minister to answer what was a perfectly reasonable question.

      It’s interesting you pointed out the perceived increase in hate crime and it was noted that this was not backed by the statistics. It was interesting to see a couple of Labour councillors try to blame the Brexit vote for something they have no evidence off. I do wonder if they will ever learn to accept a democratic outcome?

      You are right both sides should argue with passion. However as in any work environment I would expect more from paid elected representatives than I do from football fans. I certainly hope act differently at work to at Selhurst.

  • Robert Ward

    Certainly agree that the new mayor is a vast improvement as meeting chair.

  • Michael Swadling

    As if to prove the point made above.