The Public Gallery: I am Croydon, hear me roar

By - Thursday 24th October, 2013

As the pieces move into place for Election 2014, much will be made of the statements, actions, and track record of Croydon’s councillors. As we elect our MPs to represent us and vote on national issues, it is ironically their less well-known council counterparts who make most of the decisions that affect us in our daily lives.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this column – or the Citizen generally – that I am firmly of the belief that local politics matters. But this week, I’m taking a break from the inner workings of Katharine Street and focusing on another kind of local politics. In the week that saw Croydon residents begin crowdfunding a legal effort to stop the Riesco sale, it seems appropriate to talk about people power – and how Croydonians use it.

Question Time in Coulsdon proves an ill-tempered affair

The council’s most recent Croydon Question Time was on Tuesday, and saw Margaret Mead, Hannah Miller, Steve O’Connell, Mike Fisher and Superintendent Rob Atkin take questions at Coulsdon Community Centre. The chair was Elizabeth Radcliffe, chair of the Coulsdon Forum and, in her own words ‘a paid-up member of the Make Coulsdon A Better Place Society’. The panel seemed confident and on good form (perhaps feeling welcome in Coulsdon’s very blue territory) although Steve O’Connell appeared to have come dressed as a 1980s cabinet minister. It was a look which, admittedly, he pulled off.

But what of people power? The main issue Coulsdon residents wanted to talk about was the Coulsdon Masterplan’s lack of a southern access route to the new Cane Hill development. The development is expected to eventually produce a town which dwarfs Coulsdon, and connections with it are seen as a major priority for the town’s survival.

Turnout at the meeting was high, as was tension. Charlie King, Chair of Coulsdon East Residents’ Association, was not alone in expressing frustration that the council ‘seemed to have stopped listening’, and on more than one occasion residents turned on one another and accused them of rambling or of talking nonsense. It was a night of people power, but it all seemed very undirected.

A few encouraging moments stood out, however. Foremost in my mind is Graham Lomas’ suggestion that the coming crisis in school places that looms as Cane Hill is developed could be solved by the construction of a new school on the site of the old hospital in Cane Hill itself. While Mike Fisher’s response was less than enthusiastic, it was refreshing to hear a concrete suggestion in a meeting of townspeople with a reputation for shouting ‘why won’t you do what we want?!’

Full details of what went on at the meeting can be found in the Citizen’s Twitter feed (I provided live updates at the time).

Friends of Ashburton Park unsurprisingly friendly

The next night, on the other side of the borough, residents gathered independently of the council to discuss ways to bring the former library in Ashburton Park into community ownership. The mood could not have been more different. Discussion was good-humoured and open, and contributions were welcomed and never shouted down.

What was the difference? The format, certainly, was one factor. Instead of a Question Time-style ‘ask things of the panel’ structure, veteran American community organiser Arnie Graf (who provided anecdotal comparisons with The Wire and explained his presence by saying ‘I heard there was a meeting in Croydon and I flew over’) encouraged the meeting to break up into smaller groups and discuss priorities. The meeting ended with a presentation of each group’s conclusions. Such a structure allowed for far more reasoned discussion, as did the positive outcome being actively sought.

Did an absence of partisanship help? Three Labour councillors – Alison Butler, Tony Newman and Wayne Lawlor – were present initially, but no councillors from Ashburton (who are all Conservative) were in attendance. While Arnie Graf had been invited by Labour, he stressed the meeting was not a party political one. This reassurance was popular with attendees, who numbered about 50. Without party or council figures to attack or criticise, the meeting found itself more inward-looking than Croydon Question Time. The result was a far more pleasant and cooperative experience.

‘If I want to write, I’ll use chalk – cheese won’t work’

The above heading is by far the most memorable quotation from Tuesday’s Question Time in Coulsdon. It was said in response to a disputed assertion by a questioner that the choice facing Coulsdon was continued existence as a ‘nice suburb’ versus a connected and integrated relationship with Cane Hill. While others contested the ‘false choice’ between the two, arguing both were possible and necessary, a gentleman at the back shouted this immortal line.

I’ll come to the point – am I comparing chalk with cheese? Possibly. Ashburton’s meeting may have had a more positive atmosphere but it was not meant to be an occasion where public representatives were held to be account. Coulsdon’s may not have produced as many positive solutions – though it did produce some – but it was not meant to. Councillors were there to listen to grievances, take on suggestions if they were forthcoming but above all answer questions from the public. It is very much a feature of the format that people will become angry while questioning.

Whatever else can be said about them, both these meetings are part of a wider pattern in Croydon. Attendance at public meetings and consultations is on the up. Protest movements, be they about incinerators, parks or disability cuts, are gaining more traction. But the difference between these meetings was in their outlook. Coulsdon hosted a meeting characterised by frustrated residents demanding the council listen to them. Ashburton’s was a collective process to find solutions to a problem that every attendee was keen to solve. Crucially, the Friends of Ashburton Park organised themselves. They did not descend on a council-arranged airing of grievances.

Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in shouting. Perhaps we shouldn’t limit the occasions we come together as a community to those which the council invites us to.

Perhaps we should meet.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Jonny Rose

    Great stuff, Tom.

    “Crucially, the Friends of Ashburton Park *organised themselves*” really resonates. For too long people in Croydon have been content to look to others to architect their futures, instead of asking what they can do for themselves.That mentality is weak, defeatist and an embarrassment; leading to inevitable disappointment when they realise their elected representatives are not the saviours they once hoped.

    As I wrote in my ‘Martyrs and Satyrs’ piece about our borough of ‘satyrs’:

    “In many ways, Croydon – as with everywhere – suffers from a paucity of vision and ability amongst its residents. People seem content to leave the agency of their lives in the hands of the political classes because it conveniently exonerates them from a) taking responsibility and b) having to do something about it”

    The sooner we realise that we don’t have to rely on politicians – who, for the most part, lack the professional talent, intelligence or ability to solve any of Croydon’s problems – the better.

    • Jonny Rose

      Addendum: To be clear, I’m not saying Croydon’s politicians are completely redundant (obvs they’re not), but just we can all do so much more, to greater effect, independently of them. Mostly.

      • Mario Creatura

        We can do more than them – if only because we outnumber them tens of thousands to one!

        Remember that the two groups are not mutually exclusive. Councillors have their role to play as do independent bodies. The Council will always be there. If we treat them as facilitators for our innovation rather than enemies of progress then we’ll all be winners much faster.

        • Anne Giles

          Now that I do agree with.

    • Christian Wilcox

      I am quite happy to agree that huge chunks of the Croydon populace are chuffing lazy and just wait for other people to do it.

      It irks me. A lot.

    • Tom Black

      Thanks for reading, Jonny, and for an incisive comment. Your Martyrs article was actually on my mind as I wrapped up the closing argument of this piece. It’s a sentiment I definitely share – though perhaps more in tune with Mario’s view below, along the lines of ‘the council are always going to be there, but if we do things ourselves AND learn to co-operate with them, we can implement things far more effectively – and make them last’. That final point is often forgotten about.

  • Sean Creighton

    Thoughtful piece Tom. My experience over the years is that most Council run public meetings will usually start with people expressing their frustrations.This is a necessary part of the process that has to be gone through before the discussion can be turned to constructive dialogue. However poor chairing or the perceived contempt by Councillors or officials of people’s concerns will prevent this happening. The worst examples are when the Chair gets angry and shuts the meeting down and walks out. The contrast you describe between the Coulsdon and Ashburton meetings raises the interesting question as to the extent to which Councillors are willing to change their approach, listen to what people are saying and not the manner in which they say it , reflect on what people are saying, and not always fall into the trap of being defensive. They need to acknowledge that their policy and implementation decisions may need to be altered in the light of matters that had not been properly considered. It was really refreshing about 4 years a few years ago to attend a meeting in Lambeth run by a voluntary sector organisation at which Council officers actually apologised for the approach they had taken on one of the issues under discussion.

    • Tom Black

      That does sound refreshing, Sean! I can’t remember the last time I saw something like that in person.

      As my piece says, the councillors at the meeting were, politics aside, quite good at answering the questions. Meaningless platitudes were occasionally present but by and large questions were answered by those who were equipped to answer them, such as the attending council officers. This mood of co-operation was probably helped by the excellent Chair, Elizabeth Radcliffe. While she was very good at making sure people got to the point and didn’t spend too long on any one area, she was also certainly not interested in shutting down the meeting or getting angry. Elizabeth, again, is a community figure rather than a council one – I think this model is a good idea as it means that even if the council is being attacked, the Chair won’t feel inherently defensive.

  • Stephen Mann

    Tom, thanks for the write up. Really interesting contrast especially considering the issues affecting each area and how they were presented.

    Two public meetings in a row (one council organised the other FOAP organised) the councillors have failed to show without apologies. Sadly this suggests a disregard for the electorate and local issues concerning the Arena development and Ashburton Park, the centrepiece of the ward.

    If anyone is interested in supporting/following the Friends of Ashburton Park campaign please follow or

    • Tom Black

      It was a pleasure to attend the meeting, as I hope the article conveyed! I wish the campaign the very best, and will keep an eye on its progress, both personally and professionally.

  • Mario Creatura

    Tom, you put your finger on a growing trend in communities across London. I’ve long believed that the best way for long-term change to occur is for it to come from the ground up. When a passionate individual decides to tackle an issue, the best way to achieve the end goal is for that person to gather supporters and break the obstacles down into manageable chunks. This is the model that FOAP seems to be following and I’m sure it will bear great non-party political fruit for them.

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that our elected representatives are only human. They can’t know of every broken streetlight or every bag of fly-tipping in their patch. Who does? This is why community engagement at a street-by-street level is so critical to the success of the whole borough. Help and nag your Councillors. Hold them to account a la Coulsdon’s meeting. Remember that voting in a locally representative democracy gives the overall and critical direction of travel for Croydon, they do have the power to influence, but that does not mean the rest of us can sit idly by and do nothing to improve our town. Councillors and MPs have a job and most work bloody hard at it. That doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook.

    Our community spirit seems to be coming back with a vengeance (as I’ve argued previously on The Citizen: and that can only be a good thing for the future of Croydon.

    • Anne Giles

      A lot of people simply do not report things, whether it is fly tipping or broken streetlights. A few months ago my cleaner asked me to report three broken streetlights in her street. I was furious. She felt that I “knew the right people” and she didn’t. She also said that she did not have time to go into the Council website to report things. She does have time, as it happens.

      • Tom Black

        It sounds to me, Anne, as though the problem is less with your cleaner but with the perceptions of the council that she has developed. Too many people feel that way – that you need to ‘know the right people’ or simply ‘politics is a mystery to me’. It’s not people’s fault, it’s simply about raising awareness – but I think the answer or solution is too complex to go into in a newspaper comment! Perhaps it deserves a Citizen piece in its own right.

        • Anne Giles

          Perhaps you are right.

          • Anne Giles

            I did, in fact, have a story published in the Selsdon Gazette, giving residents details of how to report things on line, with the links.