The Public Gallery: A new mayor and a new administration

By - Thursday 5th June, 2014

Mayor Shamul-Hameed has a different sort of council to keep in line, but she herself promises to be a different sort of mayor. Tom Black watched them all in action at their very first council meeting

I like the public gallery in the Town Hall Council Chamber. It inspired the name of this column for a number of reasons. One is that it reminds me that I attend meetings as a member of Joe Public, the plebeians, the masses. We humble voters, whether our chosen candidates were victorious or unsuccessful, get to sit above the proceedings of our councillors. It’s always disappointing to me when the public gallery is half-empty, interest in meetings is low and those who do attend are interested mainly in cheering exclusively for one party and heckling the other.

So it was with a heavy sense of irony that I sat down in the press gallery on Tuesday. Not only was I flanked by people far more intelligent and experienced than myself at this ‘journalism’ thing, I was also seated directly opposite a public gallery that was a) full b) pre-booked and c) very well-behaved. Who knew the people of Croydon still knew how to take the election of a new mayor seriously?

It must be hard to have as one’s final duty replacing oneself

For that was what we were gathered to see. After a year of service as the borough’s First Citizen, Yvette Hopley stepped down, her final act as mayor to oversee the election of Councillor Manju Shahul-Hameed. I’ve always thought it must be hard for one’s final duty to be replacing oneself and Councillor Hopley was clearly emotional as she returned to a seat in the chamber as an ex-mayor. She did, however, carry herself with the dignified, smiling demeanour that councillors have come to expect of her.

The speeches of the evening were different to the usual back-and-forth of the council chamber. This was usual – meetings for the election of mayors are ‘above party politics’, even though the nominee of the majority party always wins. But Tony Newman in particular seemed uncharacteristically subdued. He called a moment’s silence for the late father-in-law of new mayoral deputy Patricia Hay-Justice, but his nomination speech as a whole was softly-spoken. In a far cry from his usual bombast, Newman delivered a touching and personal look at the mayor-elect’s credentials.

Defeated council leader (but still a councillor) Mike Fisher joined the tributes to the incoming mayor, but not before saying a few words about the recent election. He wished the new Labour administration well – “but not too well, obviously” – ha ha – and said of the Conservatives: “We will be a pragmatic opposition – we will not oppose for opposition’s sake, but we will be effective in holding the council to account.” I look forward to seeing whether this holds true, as neither local party has a particularly strong record of supporting their opposite numbers in Croydon.

Our new mayor has a gavel and she is not afraid to use it

After putting on her robes for the first time, the new mayor returned and addressed those assembled. It was a warm and encouraging speech, framed around “the four best things to have have happened to me” (the fourth was becoming mayor, the first was her husband). “I’ve made Croydon my home,” Croydon’s first British Indian mayor said, describing her arrival here in 1996. “My children grew up here, and I want other people to be able to share it.”

Hers was an encouraging story to hear from an individual in the robes of a mayor. But she showed she was also ready to have some teeth when it came to her duties. There will be no heckling in her chamber, she warned: “I have a gavel, and I am not afraid to use it.”

Councillors would do well to heed her further instruction: “Every time we enter this chamber, we should behave as if our residents could see us.” Thanks to a policy commitment from the victorious Labour group, we should all be able to watch webcast council meetings live from now on. That’s if the technology works – which frankly I wouldn’t put money on.

The honeymoon is about to end

After the ceremonial business was done, the mayor whipped through (no pun intended) the rest of the agenda at high speed. Tony Newman was elected council leader, committee members and officers were elected (including for the infamous Bandon Hill Cemetery Joint Committee, which sounds like a fictional slush fund but isn’t one) and soon the whole thing was over.

So – Croydon has a new mayor, and a new council. As the councillors enjoyed drinks and nibbles in the mayor’s chambers after the meeting, there was a sense of celebration and relaxation. However, those I spoke to were surely far from alone in feeling the honeymoon is about to end. The work of governing Croydon has already resumed behind the scenes, of course. But it will soon be time for the Labour administration to make good on some of its big promises.

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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  • Anne Giles

    I had understood that the meeting was only for special invitees and that Joe public were not being allowed to attend. I say this, because it was the first time that the meeting was not advertised anywhere – not even on Facebook. Under Events – Facebook stated that there were no events that evening.