The Public Gallery: What are full council meetings actually for?

By - Thursday 30th January, 2014

After another sorry display in the Council Chamber, Tom Black ponders what it’s all in aid of

Punch and Judy are back: with a vengeance

Did you have a good Christmas break? Did you have a pleasant rest? Did you come back to work full of good cheer? I don’t think the council did.

I wasn’t at this week’s full council meeting, but was able to listen along at home thanks to the excellent Croydon Radio ‘Croydon Live’ service, broadcasting live from the Council Chamber. While there were more-than-occasional technical problems, I and many others were able to keep abreast of the state of our democracy.

And what a state. In their first chance to cross swords since December, the council’s Labour and Conservative groups both reached new heights of shouting, pointscoring and – moreso than usual – downright rudeness.

Full council meetings are not known for their decorum. Indeed, some fraction of this response can be heard in the ether after every such meeting. But there was a consensus that Monday night was beyond the pale. Councillors called each other liars, were totally unabated by the Mayor’s repeated insistence on order, displayed open contempt for members of the public asking questions. Activists on both sides, online and offline, have been quietly unwilling to say so much as a good word about their respective council groups. Some, in quieter moments, have even engaged in grumbling dissent over their ‘leadership”s behaviour.

Bieneosa Ebite, Croydon Radio’s veteran political commentator, was noticeably unimpressed with the whole display. Gareth Davies, of the Advertiser, was angry with proceedings (see below). Several local people in the (real) public gallery, usually cheerleading for one side or the other, were reported to be livid.

When these are the reactions of people who are (in the nicest possible way) ‘in the bubble’, we really have to question what members of the public will think.

Or do we? Who are these meetings actually for? If they exist purely to rally one’s councillors and have a slanging match, then they’re achieving their purpose. I would rather see real business conducted in the chamber, but there are those who make the argument that such business happens on committees and in cabinet. They say an actually productive full council meeting is no more important to Croydon’s wellbeing than a productive Prime Minister’s Questions is important to Parliament’s business. And ultimately, it’s not like most voters, or even a plurality of them, will ever hear about councillors’ disgraceful behaviour on Monday night. Those that aren’t loyal to a particular party will vote based on contact from the local parties, but primarily on national issues.

Speaking of the national picture, one might very well look at Monday as more fuel for the growing blaze that is the UK Independence Party. After all, their local leader told us last week that this level of hostility and nonsense would not be tolerated were a UKIP group present on the council. Unlike many parts of UKIP’s apparent appeal, however, that claim may turn out to be a hard sell. The party is not known for its civility. Simon Hoar is many things – but at least he hasn’t hit someone over the head with party brochure. And while Staveley is a softly-spoken subtle political operator, it’s hard to accept criticism of overly rude speeches from the party that gave us ‘you have the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.’

What the papers (didn’t) say

An attempt at a ‘feel-good’ motion at the end of the meeting fell flat for a number of reasons. The motion, “the council agrees with the response to the Croydon Advertiser survey that ‘there are too many good things about Croydon to pick just one best thing’”, was used by both parties as an opportunity – surprise, surprise – to talk up their own achievements and talk down those of the other side.

Not only this, but Croydon Advertiser journalist and blogger Gareth Davies was vocal in his anger over the wording of the motion. The quote was, he tweeted, “a single response to a survey answered by 555 people. Positive, but not at all representative.”

What’s more, Cllr Jeet Bains could have done with reading a little more carefully before he quoted “an article in the Guardian newspaper ([a newspaper] not known for its conservatism),” that praised the work of Croydon Tech City. “‘Much of the above,’” Bains quoted, “‘can be traced back to the work of Croydon Council and its various engagements with Croydon Tech City.’” Reactions of support from Conservative councillors were muted but predictable.

Unfortunately, the article was not quite what Bains presented it as. While it is indeed on the Guardian website, it was not written by any Guardian journalist, but by Citizen contributor and Croydon Tech City founder, Jonny Rose – not a man known to toe the editorial line of the liberal-left ‘Islingtonian classes’.

While Rose’s article is a good read (disrespect for brutalist architecture aside), it’s not quite full of the glowing praise for the council that Bains implied. Rose (whose opinion of elected councillors is well-known) was pleased with the work of council officials. His view of Cllr Bains and his colleagues was laid out in the particularly scathing line ‘of course, local government officers are often hamstrung by the party-political councillors that dictate budgets, direction and targets, and remain surprisingly hostile and ignorant to the opportunities afforded by supporting Croydon Tech City.’

Oddly, this quotation did not make it into Cllr Bains’ speech. Shoddy research or deliberate misquote? Who knows?

Conservatives to take the term ‘giveaway budget’ to new heights

Well, you (may have) heard it here first. The rumoured council tax cut, talked about in the second TPG of the year, is going ahead. Sort of. Council tax is actually being frozen next year, and people who paid council tax in full this year are receiving a £25 rebate in April. As that’s only a month before the elections on 22nd May, it’s unsurprising that Croydon Labour group leader Tony Newman is not alone in calling the whole thing ‘an election bribe’.

But it just might work. I have my partisan moments, but I can’t argue that £25 being given back to council tax payers is a bad thing in and of itself. But of course, like any political decision, it has not occurred in a vacuum. A de facto reduction in tax of 50p a week is less appealing when one remembers the Tories raised council tax by 1.2% just one year ago. And a tax freeze will seem like less of a good deal to voters angry about the Riesco sell-off, library privatisation and the unclear cost of the new council HQ, Bernard Weatherill House. And of course, some voters might question the timing of the freeze – ‘anyone would think there was an election this year’ is likely to be sardonically muttered at dinner tables around the borough in the coming months.

But how much of that will matter? For many, the ‘headline’ will be ‘the Conservatives are giving you money back from your council tax’. This close to the election, that will count for something.

For the first time in a long while, Labour has a concrete reason to be worried.

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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  • Peter Staveley

    I have been called many things but never “a softly-spoken
    subtle political operator”! Indeed diplomacy is not my strong point, as
    many people will tell you.

    I am not going to try to defend Nigel’s speeches in the
    EU Parliament. However, if I were unelected and on 293,000 Euros a year plus
    expenses I would be quite happy to receive abuse from elected representatives!

    However, the headline “What are full council
    meetings actually for?” is a good one, what are they for? I do not believe
    they are achieving much that helps Croydon generally or its residents and
    businesses. If all the work is done outside the Full Council then either some
    of the work should be brought into the Full Council meetings or the number of
    meetings should be drastically reduced. Do not forget that there are large
    costs involved in staging the meeting. Is that the best use of OUR money? Would
    the money have been better spent on either more frontline services or providing
    the same level of frontline services and achieving a further reduction in the
    Council Tax.

    Do not forget that the backbench Councillors in Croydon
    are receiving the highest allowance in London. If we pay people higher
    allowances then we must expect the best service from them. Shouting at your
    opponents is unprofessional and, in my view, unhelpful to us, the people they
    are meant to serve.

  • David White

    I think one of the main problems is the change a few years ago from the Committee system of running the Council to the Cabinet system. When there were committees backbench councillors were much more involved and the public could see more clearly what was being discussed. Matters could be referred to the full Council which made for constructive and useful debates.

  • John Cartwright

    In the last year or so I have found that I stay less often to the end, and am more likely to leave early, because it’s so dreary and bad-tempered so much of the time. This week was worse than usual.


    I too find these displays pathetic, rude and a huge waste of time and money. How can we get away from this situation and back to a proper, grown-up meetings?

    • Peter Staveley

      How can we get away from this situation and back to a proper, grown-up meetings?

      By electing people who care more about the people and businesses of their ward that they are there to represent than those who are just interested in their political career and scoring points against the other side.

      Cooperation not confrontation is what is required.