The first casualty of office is transparency

By - Tuesday 15th March, 2016

Despite promises of the opposite, Croydon Council is quietly becoming more opaque, writes Robert Ward

Photo by Peter Staveley, used with permission.

So, the Fairfield Halls will close and the staff will be made redundant. No big surprise there – the council held all of the cards so this was always the likely outcome. Whether it is the right decision or not, time will tell. Now we just have to make the best of it. The big disappointment in this whole story is the lack of transparency, which is becoming a trademark of this council.

Taking the high moral ground by promising transparency is easy in opposition. How can the ruling party argue for less transparency? The test comes when you get into power. Transparency makes it much easier not only for the public, but also your political opposition and the press to pick holes in your decisions. The potential for embarrassment increases significantly.

Live broadcasting of council meetings is a positive development in making the process visible, as is publishing performance statistics such as the flytipping dashboard. These positive steps are now being reeled back as the council realises the difficulties.

Sometime soon I expect publication of flytipping stats to be quietly dropped

Live broadcast of meetings is great, but if the response is to degrade the quality of the discussion to simple yah-boo politics, it doesn’t help. Live broadcast is just window-dressing if we the voters learn nothing about the whys and wherefores of the decisions made by the council that affect Croydon.

As I have previously pointed out, the flytipping dashboard has seen the goal posts moved on targets and publication of each month’s statistics gets later and later. We have only just seen statistics for January, which would previously have been published in early February. I think they are hoping that no-one will notice. Sometime soon I expect publication to be quietly dropped.

The Croydon Plan showed another example, perhaps the worst so far, of lack of transparency, knocking the Fairfield Halls decision off the number one spot. The plan has much use of the words “preferred and alternative options” yet almost no alternatives are presented, especially in controversial elements, exactly where justification is most crucial.

Publication of, say, the top five ranked sites and the ranking criteria is what transparency looks like

At a public meeting I questioned a council official on the obviously controversial matter of gypsy and traveller sites. The official was happy to explain the process in vague terms – hundreds of sites evaluated, ranked against multiple criteria, and lo and behold the two sites proposed stood out by a mile.

Having been through such exercises in other contexts, I have rarely, if ever, seen that kind of result. So I asked which site came third, and which were the crucial criteria that differentiated that third place site from the top two. I received no real answer, just a lot of wriggling.

Publication of, say, the top five ranked sites and the ranking criteria is what transparency looks like. This has two main shortcomings for the council – publishing the other potential sites scares the voters in those areas and it makes it obvious if political expediency is a factor, which I suspect it often is.

We say that we want politicians to tell us the honest truth, but when they do it, we have a strong tendency not to vote for them

We, the electorate, do not help ourselves in the matter. French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville once said that in a democracy, the people get the government that they deserve. Perhaps he was right.

The truth is that in reality, other than political activists, most of the electorate shows little interest for most of the time and then only if they themselves are directly impacted. We say that we want to be involved in decision making, but when it comes to tough decisions there is never a consensus. That’s why they are tough decisions in the first place.

We also say that we want politicians to tell us the honest truth, but when they do it, we have a strong tendency not to vote for them. Or as Boris Johnson found when he, in my view correctly, pointed out that the best way to get a good offer from the EU is to vote to leave.

Let’s start today by publishing alternative options, supporting information and justifications on some of the more controversial decisions

Other politicians from both sides of the argument shushed him. Even Boris can’t stand entirely on his own, even when he is probably correct. My guess is that the view is that making that clear is a recipe for an extended and inconclusive series of referendums which would be damaging. It would also create a lot of difficult work for the politicians.

But what to do here in Croydon? Unavoidably the council has to lead on this. This is, indeed, what leadership is about.

The tide needs to turn from the current stonewalling and avoidance. Let’s start today with publishing alternative options, supporting information and justifications on some of the more controversial decisions.

There are two more years until the next election. If things go on as they are even the thickest-skinned of politicians won’t be able to say with a straight face that transparency improved under this council. Mind you, I wouldn’t bet against them trying…

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

    There are many people in Croydon who have been involved in publishing alternative options with supporting information and justifications on some of the more controversial decisions. We need more to take part not just as commentators but also as citizen activists through the multitude of organisations in the Borough, and through them working together through umbrella groups such as the Croydon Assembly (which meets this Saturday at Ruskin House) to adopt a manifesto setting out an alternative campaign agenda to simply one of opposition. We also need a complete change in the way the Council operates to encourage genuine engagement in discussion, to have the courage to amend papers at Cabinet in the light of matters drawn to its attention in emails and letters. for Scrutiny and planning to treat submissions from the public with more seriousness, to respond quickly to emails and letters and not dodge answering them. Above all we need to abandon the Leader/Cabinet system and give more involvement in decision making back to all Councillors.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Sean, a whole bunch of things in there.

      I am all for alternative solutions, but I think my emphasis is on the choices around execution of policy rather than policy itself. Policy is something that we vote on every four years.

      I very much agree that changing or modifying a decision in response to scrutiny, be it by the opposition or the general public, should happen and should be a sign of strength rather than weakness. Deciding behind closed doors, making scrutiny as difficult as possible then die-in-a-ditch defending of the decision looks bad to the public and leads to poorer decisions.

      If we take the example of the Fairfields closure, yes there was a campaign to keep it open but it is hamstrung by lack of information. Perhaps with a lot of effort one could work out an alternative business case but in my view it is the Council’s job to have looked at that option and to have rejected it for sound reasons. I do not see why those sound reasons and the information on which it is based should not be up for scrutiny. My suspicion is that they are not so sound.

      You are welcome to your Croydon Assembly, but if it does as I suspect start from the whole Tories-are-evil, tax-the-rich, spend more money assumption.then forgive me if I demur.

  • Peter Staveley

    I disagree about whether it matters that few people take an interest in events. On important issues people turn-out in large numbers. The meeting that discussed the proposal to permit building on greenspace/MOL/Green Belt saw several hundred residents (mainly from the Shirley area) all wanting to be part of the discussion. The fact that they were not involved in the discussion (apart from a couple of public questions) is part of the problem.

    Yes, the new administration did the right thing by re-introducing the broadcasting of Council meetings but I agree that it is becoming more and more common for there to be a lack of transparency in the decision-making process. Quite frankly the Labour administration are merely repeating the lack of transparency that the previous Conservative suffered from. That leads me to think that the main problem is a structural cross-party issue.

    With the cabinet system I think that too much power is placed in too few people. Whilst those supporting the cabinet system will say that the system means that you get a strong decisive Council. The disadvantage is that those with the power realise that they also have the power to get through what they want without bothering asking those with alternative opinions.

    We are now at the point where the current administration realises that they now have to rail-road decisions through in order to show that they have done something by May 2018. So transparency ends up being reduced.

    I think we should consider going back to a Committee system. Under that system whilst a majority administration would still have a majority at least the decision-making process will be shared with more councillors. In my experience (of councils that have recently changed back) that give more transparency and a much wider consensus of opinion. That will make a nice and positive change in Croydon and will contrast with the current adversarial (Cabinet) system that results in both sides arguing and the opposition walking out of meetings when they realise that they have nothing they can contribute to the decision-making, or even the discussion.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Peter.

      I certainly don’t think the lack of engagement of the general public is a good thing. I take your point that if they feel powerless it doesn’t encourage that engagement..

      I have only recently taken an in-depth interest in the workings of the Council so have not seen the Committee system in operation close up. The leader cabinet model has advantages. One is the leader sets the tone, but at least as far as current Council meetings go the leader sets a point-scoring tone right from the start of every discussion. The Tories are unable to stop themselves from biting back, and off we go again. Maybe the leader/cabinet set-up is not the problem, it’s who the leader is.

      • Peter Staveley

        I think that it is this point-scoring tone that is one of the things that puts off people, who are not political activists, from taking more of an interest in how their money is spent.

        The few people who do take an interest see the point-scoring and think “How is this going to help me?”. They also think that they have no power to change things.

        My view is that if you give real power to the average person then they will become more interested in what is happening.

        Take what is happening in Shirley. So far as I know the first that anyone in Shirley knew about permitting the building of a lot houses on green land was when someone read the Local Plan proposals. Why were there not several optioneering public meetings? At those meetings the issues could have been discussed and that used to formulate the actual Proposed Local Plan.

        Before people say that “obviously those in Shirley would object to the plan because they are NIBMYS” the point is that Croydon is getting a dicktat from the Mayor of London who, ultimately, would force the planning for a number of new houses into the Local Plan.

        So, in effect, the residents would help Council officers and Councillors find where those new houses could be put. By doing that everyone will then find the least worst option that a large number of residents will accept.

        As it is the residents have the perception that they have no say (except at the 4-yearly local elections) to decide how their area will be developed.

        Part of the problem is that Councillors (on both sides) think that they have been elected and so have the right (if not duty) to make all the decisions and (by being elected) they will not give their electorate any power to change those decisions, or even help make those decisions.

        Most consultations are little more that a sham. In how many consultations where the result went against the recommendation were even published, let alone ensured the proposal was dropped? If you do not give real power to people then they will show no interest.