Croydon’s council elections aren’t just about who’s the best manager

By - Tuesday 24th April, 2018

‘Vote for us – we’ll run things better!’ say the two rival parties. Can they live up to their claims?

‘The job of unlocking Croydon’s potential is not a quick and easy one’.

This important statement in Labour’s manifesto for May’s council elections is a stark reminder of the realities that face whichever of the two main parties gains control on 3rd May. Croydon faces government-imposed funding cuts to the council, schools, NHS and police. Key decisions are being made by developers, there is an uncontrollable increase in private renting and the number of dwellings with multiple occupancy (HMOs), the continued privatisation of schools, and the obsession with letting London grow: between 30,000 and 45,000 new homes are to be built in the borough with inadequate funding for the infrastructure residents will need.

Control of the council is presented to electors as ‘vote for us: we can manage it better than the other lot.’ But both Labour and Conservative parties have hinted that not all is well with the executive leader and cabinet system used to run Croydon. Labour says: ‘when we came into office, democracy in Croydon was at a low. We were determined to turn this round and start listening… we now want to become London’s most democratic borough.’ It promises ‘a detailed review of the borough’s constitution’. The Tories also propose a number of modifications, but these are tinkering at the edges and are not fundamental.

This issue of the council’s structure is a crucial one because it is at the heart of the problem of how best to manage the council at a time of increasing difficulty.

The current system places decision-making and power in fewer and fewer hands

To be successful, Croydon needs a constitution that fosters creativity and imagination. The Croydon Assembly, initiated by Croydon Trades Union Council, considers that this must be built on a deeper and more inclusive democracy, rather than a cabinet structure that concentrates decision-making in fewer hands whoever is in power, and marginalises the majority of councillors. The assembly has therefore produced a people’s manifesto.

The assembly wants the cabinet system abolished and the restoration of the committee system, giving all councillors the right to be involved in deciding policy. It also proposes decision-making district committees of councillors and local community representatives.

Neither party in control can just sit back and let the funding cuts continue. The party who wins has to campaign for public support and to lobby the government.

The council should be lobbying for rent controls and repair standards for private landlords

As well as reversing the funding cuts, the Croydon Assembly urges the parties to lobby for powers to compel owners of empty homes to bring them back into use or have them compulsorily purchased; for powers to acquire land for the development of social housing; for action to prevent landowners from sitting on land banks (as in the St George’s Walk area); and for local communities to have the right of appeal against planning decisions they oppose. Both parties should commit themselves to protecting the Green Belt from building development. Because of the problems they create, the council should also be lobbying against the subsidies to buy-to-let landlords, for an end to short-term tenancies and for the introduction of rent controls and repair standards.

Labour has been in power for nearly four years. It has many positive achievements: adoption of the London Living Wage policy, the creation of the landlord licensing scheme, prosecutions of fly-tippers, taking the libraries back into council control after the collapse of Carillion, installing sprinklers in its high-rise blocks, setting up apprenticeships, the Good Employer Charter, taking on the letting and management of privately owned homes, the Gateway support service and many more. Its manifesto sets out a full list. Not everyone one will agree that its view of achievement is correct: it also lists, for example, the arrival of Boxpark and the new-look Surrey Street market.

Brick By Brick should become more accountable

Labour also presents Brick by Brick, its housing development vehicle, as an achievement. While promising to build council housing, the Tories pledge to shut the company down. The Croydon Assembly is not opposed to Brick by Brick. But because it has imposed new schemes ignoring residents’ views, it should be made more accountable and be bound by the results of ballots of residents. The assembly has been advocating council support for community-led housing and social projects. The Labour council recently adopted such a policy.

Criticising the sitting Labour administration is certainly okay, and I have tried to be constructive in doing so since May 2014. It is also okay to be critical of the Tory record as managers up to May 2014, for example rushing Westfield’s development through just before the 2014 election, the withdrawal of funding from the Warehouse Theatre, the sale of part of the Riesco Collection, not acting on their 2010 pledge to oppose the Beddington waste incinerator, the costly Bernard Weatherill House and the run-down of Fairfield Halls. Then, since May 2014, they have also shown their inability to be an effective opposition.

They now open their election campaign having voted for the 2018/19 Labour budget and in agreement with much of the flawed Croydon Local Plan, which started its journey when they were in control. They have very little room for manoeuvre. The assembly’s manifesto contains many proposals that would widen the manoeuvrability for both parties.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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