Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission gets off to a bumpy start

By - Wednesday 25th March, 2015

Sean Creighton thinks that Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission could definitely do better

Image by Opportunity Croydon, used with permission.

Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission hasn’t got off to the smoothest of starts. There was a long delay in announcing the appointment of the Bishop of Croydon as chair, followed by further delays in announcing the first members and resident commissioners.

Then, at the launch event at Stanley Halls, people were not given any chance to have collective discussions and, failing to learn from this mistake, only fifteen minutes were allowed for discussion at the more recent New Addington meeting.

The result has been criticism in Croydon’s newspapers and on local blogs. As a supporter of the idea of the commission, I consider this bumpy start to be unfortunate as it erodes confidence, potentially resulting in fewer people engaging and leading to a less successful outcome.

In the hope of raising public participation, the commission is staging walkabouts, and encouraging organisations to invite commissioners to discuss issues and ideas with them. But even this is proving to be of questionable effectiveness: there were only about sixteen people at the Faiths Together in Croydon meeting held on Monday 16th March. Commissioner Brian Stapleton, who was in attendance, agreed that the New Addington meeting had been poorly organised. The following suggestions were made for improvements: the addition of a public meeting in Croydon North where inequalities are growing; that the ‘DIY engagement kit’ should be available on the website as well as in print format; the use of events like the Croydon Heritage and Ambition festivals to engage with more people. During the subsequent group discussions, I made the following notes of the main points raised:

Main challenges facing Croydon:

  • There is a lack of police on the streets. There are safety fears connected with fans going to Crystal Palace football matches. People are perplexed as to why South Norwood police station is closed. While community support officers are often outside schools at the end of the day, the police only seem to concentrate on West Croydon where lots of teenagers hang about. The crime level is a shock to many newly arrived immigrants
  • The frequent lateness of trains and the congestion on the roads mean that transport delays are frequent and people are often late for work or mosque prayer times. The experience of delays adds to frustration and stress
  • Some people feel embarrassed to have friends and family come to visit because of dirty streets and graffiti. One attendee no longer goes to the town centre because of the mess
  • New buildings are being built right up to the pavement, obscuring sight lines at roundabouts and compromising driver safety, and creating a tunnel effect e.g. along London Road
  • Most community groups are small and volunteer-run and not always able to take part in wider meetings, networking and training
  • Council control of community groups as a result of the commissioning system puts groups into a straitjacket. Annual reductions in funding for services leads to a reduction in quality. Private companies are often at an advantage by being better placed and resourced to bid
  • The council is part of the problem, seeing itself as controller not enabler
  • People are understandably not prepared to take jobs which offer unaffordably low wages
  • There are not enough organised activities for children; some previous services have been closed. There are not enough swings in parks
  • There are not enough green spaces in the town centre
  • In some streets the number of street lights has been reduced under the replacement programme. Reduced lighting levels create concerns about crime. The council and Skanska seem not to listen to concerns
  • An inadequate number of well-lit, controlled crossings across some main roads
  • There is no consultation with local residents about whether they want new academies and free schools located in, for example, London Road
Quality of life is about more than nominal quality and inclusion

Croydon’s assets include: multi-cultural diversity, community and voluntary groups, lots of job opportunities, talented people, Croydon Arts Network and initiatives such as RISEgallery, Croydon Tech City, growing sophistication of the food culture on offer, pound shops and small businesses.

There were differing opinions about whether the Whitgift Centre redevelopment will stimulate the growth of new small businesses, or put up rentals and business rates, leading to a reduction. Will it provide mainly low-paid retail jobs or a range of wage levels? Will the potentially high-end shops located there be beyond the price range of certain groups, increasing their sense of exclusion? Will housing rents and purchase prices be pushed higher?

An interesting discussion started on the idea that the non-interest/profit-sharing principles of Islamic finance could, maybe should, be made available to small businesses through the council.

What conclusions can be drawn from this discussion? That quality of life is about more than just nominal equality and inclusion. It is also about practicalities: mobility, the quality of the built and street environment, and the availability and accessibility of services ranging from policing to children’s play facilities.

It is important that as many people as possible are aware of, and understand, the changes that are taking place. We all have a responsibility to share resources and knowledge so that the commission can foster real and positive change.

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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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  • David Callam

    Judging by Sean’s notes this muddled commission is a repository for the concerns of the worried well: a bunch of people with too much time on their hands. As such it is a gross waste of money at a time when Croydon Council is even more cash-strapped than usual.

    • Stephen Giles

      History in the making David – I fully agree with you!!!

    • Croydonian

      Well, yes. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s social welfare for middle class people of a certain age. Nothing wrong with that. You don’t want them all hanging around the town center scaring the shoppers!

  • Steve Appleton

    It would appear that “New Labour” (in the form of the council) have forgotten all that the Labour Movement has learned over the past 100 years or more. The reason the Commission is floundering is that the issues faced by Croydon Citizens are not in any way new or unique – that is, poverty, poor housing, unemployment.

    Most substantial problems could be addressed with policies aimed at benefiting the majority of the population, such as – capping & controlling rents, building affordable houses & flats, bringing schools back under democratic, local control (and building more of them), bringing social housing and other services back in-house for better (and cheaper) management. And not least – ending the cuts vital services across the board.