Croydon Council approves the budget, to the surprise of no-one

By - Monday 2nd March, 2015

Robert Ward reflects on the manner – and the purpose – of our borough’s council meetings

Croydon Council has approved the budget for next year. This was rubber-stamped at a full council meeting broadcast via CroydonLive.

For those fortunate enough not to have been watching, the Labour line is that they have rescued a sinking ship and reversed innumerable bad decisions. Any shortcomings are the fault of the coalition government.

Unsurprisingly the Conservatives beg to differ. Their take is Labour is deferring bad news, favouring its own supporters and is incapable of managing a budget so Croydon taxpayers will end up paying dearly.

It was long on hyperbole, faux outrage and repetitive argument

Councillor Bains enthused on Twitter about the meeting. He seems to have seen it as raucous, knockabout fun. I am not so sure.

To me it was long on hyperbole, faux outrage and repetitive argument. Good questions were put, but few were answered. Some Councillors seemed to be having a good time, especially if an opponent was caught out. Unfortunately this was often an in-joke lost on us outsiders.

Bafflingly, at one point the leader of the Council mentioned his discussions with councillors from both sides about creating a more constructive process. Yet he almost immediately indulged himself in exactly the opposite sort of behaviour. Indeed if I had to award a prize for least constructive behaviour he would be a leading contender.

The opposition has the job of scrutinising and holding the ruling party to account in order to benefit the people of Croydon

The proximity of a general election is an exacerbating factor, but from my observation this process has not been working for some time. To try to figure out how this might be improved, let’s take it from first principles. What exactly are we trying to achieve and for whom?

Our council is elected with a mandate to raise money, deliver services and make decisions on priorities. The opposition has the job of scrutinising and holding the ruling party to account in order to benefit the people of Croydon.

The crucial question then is whether these Council meetings help in that regard. In my view they do not.

The basic process of the opposition asking questions, the ruling party answering in public is a good one. Where we seem to fall down is in how we do it. Prime Minister’s Questions has similar issues. There the Speaker makes sure that the two protagonists are heard, but what they say is up to them, much like the Council meeting.

 They have been elected to lead. We voters are the customers here

As Ed Miliband often reminds David Cameron, the opposition ask the questions, the government are supposed to answer them, not deride the questioner, obfuscate or ask questions themselves. But that is frequently what is done. The chair is supposed to keep order but has no role in ensuring questions actually get answered. The ruling party always gets the last word.

Is there a better way? If pushed I would say the House of Commons Select Committees are a possible model. These cross-party committees with an elected chair can and do hold ministers to account.

But it is not our job to find solutions, it is our council’s. They have been elected to lead. We voters are the customers here.

Taking my own advice from my recent article on confirmation bias, it is also possible I am missing something and these meetings are achieving things that I cannot see. You never know.

So, as Mario Creatura offered an idea last month, here is my proposal – the next Croydon Council debate should be “Croydon Council meetings are serving the needs of the people of Croydon”. Councillor Bains may want to propose. Any seconders?

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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  • Sean Creighton

    Council meetings are important because they are the final stage in the formal decision making process. In one sense Council meetings are set piece formulas; both sides have their pre-set positions, and as we saw in the runup to the local elections there is the danger of the ya-boo cut and thrust. The likellhood of a change of direction at Council meetings is slim, but the leadership can do so from time to time. Because the local press do not cover Council Committees and the full Council in the detail they used to several decades ago, most of the public do not know what is being decided. Only a handful turn up in the public gallery. Before the local elections several candidates attended. Attendees include some members of the public who have submitted questions. While the answers are not always in the spirit you suggest they should be, there are plenty of detailed answers to some of them as to the questions tabled by Councillors. These are invaluable source of information. While I had hoped for the revised Scrutiny process to improve things it has not yet developed sufficiently as a watch dog, and can often been deprived of information leading to it misunderstanding what is happening, as was the case with the discussion a few weeks ago on the Stronger Communities Partnership.It is important to engage with the Council process, to submit relevant information and views to Councillors in advance as I do (and report on my blog). It is also why I use my blog to let people know about the topics to be discussed at meetings. While there is very little feedback from emails to Councillors, and very difficult to know whether they influenced debate, some do express their appreciation for them. There is still room for further reform of the while Committee and meeting system. One of the useful rights Opposition Councillors had many years ago on some Councils was the ability to refer Committee decisions to the next full Council meeting enabling further behind the scenes discussion and then involving all Councillors. This mechanism prevented officers taking any action until the full Council meeting had taken the final decision.