So far so good from the Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission

By - Monday 2nd November, 2015

Sean Creighton on how Croydon should respond to the commission’s interim findings

Image by Opportunity Croydon, used with permission.

Given the reservations many people had about its potential value and its membership, the non-participatory nature of its launch and the difficulties it has had in getting public and organisational engagement, the report of the Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission is an unexpectedly refreshing analysis with many excellent recommendations. It vindicates my urging in the Croydon Citizen for people to engage, and the time I took to prepare and submit evidence.

The commission recognises that Croydon faces major challenges, including:

  • increasing inequalities
  • lack of affordable and secure housing
  • rising homelessness
  • over-reliance on office and retail employment
  • lack of enough affordable childcare facilities
  • prevalence of low wages
  • isolation and loneliness
  • communities feeling under pressure
  • government and therefore local authority cuts
  • feelings of powerlessness to influence change

Additionally, most of the recommendations contained in the ‘What we would like to see’ section deserve widespread support. Much of the analysis and the recommendations echo evidence submitted to it. Many resonate with the Croydon TUC Growth Plan recommendations submitted to the council last year, and which the council will not get into detailed discussion about.

Above all, and remarkably, given a member is a director of Westfield, the commission does not see the redevelopment of the Whitgift shopping centre as a panacea but as a springboard for further initiatives relating to training and the London Living Wage, again issues raised by the CTUC and in my evidence to the CPO inquiry.

The report highlights the grassroots, bottom-up initiatives by community and voluntary groups, cultural activists and Croydon Tech City. It wholeheartedly backs the devolution of powers and the nurturing community and social enterprise initiatives. It talks about wanting to see more community-led action.

If implemented, the practical proposals are stepping stones to achieve change that will benefit all levels of existing and future residents of Croydon. However they will only get acted upon if there is a massive cultural shift in the way the council operates, away from top-down decision making and entrapment by the corporate world of the developers.

The final report needs to set out a lucid short-term vision for Croydon

It is important that there are positive responses to the interim report, with people and organisations making it clear which recommendations they support, and which they have reservations about. Where people oppose recommendations, clear reasons for this need to be given.

The final report needs to set out a lucid, short-term vision for Croydon so it is clear how its stepping stones contribute to reaching that vision in these difficult periods of governmental cuts.

It is also important to note that there are aspects of Croydon’s past and future that need consideration, including:

  • a discussion of what ‘community’ means – whether in aspects of common interest, geography, or issue – and the issues involved when different communities have conflicting views and needs
  • greater promotion of the concept of ‘citizen action’ and a clear understanding that volunteering is not the same as ‘citizen action’
  • the importance of listening, reading and reflecting before responding on social media and speaking at public meetings to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict
  • the importance of seeking to reach a consensus on the way forward in dealing with issues
  • the need for the public sector to better understand community action and the community and voluntary sector
  • the greening of the environment and the local economy
  • the development of a broader base of jobs away from office and retail to provide flexible resilience within the local economy
  • improvements to public transport tackling the negative effects of the train zone system between Norbury and East and West Croydon, and the lack of bus routes serving many residential areas
  • the protection of the heritage environment
  • the need to use the planning powers to defend the town centre, district and local centres from infringements of planning law, and against unwanted and unsympathetic development and the neglect of high streets
  • the risks to public health from air pollution and low level food hygiene in relation to restaurants and take-aways
  • a better understanding of the actual, not theoretical, relationship between schools and the residents of the neighbourhoods in which they are located
  • a better understanding of the problems children and teenagers are experiencing that may depress their physical and mental well-being

The last four years have seen two major crises in Croydon: the 2011 riots and the 2014 flooding in Kenley and other areas. Neither the causes nor the long-term effects of these are discussed, nor is the key issue of the way policing is carried out and especially its use of stop and search which in particular damages relationships with Croydon’s black and Asian communities. Croydon needs to recognise that its understanding of inequalities and policing interact to create a tinder box which can be sparked alight unexpectedly, as happened in 2011.

The problems created for individuals, families, neighbourhoods and service providers by the growing problems of addiction to illegal and legal drugs, eating disorders and self-harm, need further consideration. Such illnesses and patterns of destructive behaviour are difficult to change, requiring new understanding and a range of interventions to help people into recovery and health.

On a personal level, the recommendations which cause me most concern are:

  • a larger role for business improvement districts, because this extends the privatisation of public space
  • council staff having volunteer time, because this will detract them from delivering efficient services the public expects
  • stimulating the night-time economy, because of its low wages, noise, anti-social behaviour issues and stimulus to drunkenness
  • clauses in council and housing associations tenancies requiring tenants to help their socially isolated neighbours, as I believe that semi-legal compulsion will be counter-productive

Finally, further debate is needed on the how the council operates and whether the cabinet system should be replaced by the old committee system which enabled all councillors to participate in policy making and monitoring.

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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