The Public Gallery: Full council, live from the actual public gallery

By - Thursday 5th December, 2013

This week, Croydon Council held its monthly full-council meeting. It was broadcast live and made available to download by Croydon Radio, but to get a feel of the action, I attended myself. Perched on impossibly uncomfortable seating in the council chamber’s real public gallery, I surveyed the state of Croydon’s local democracy. The meeting did not resemble a discussion of ideas for how to make Croydon a better place. Instead, it was the largest-scale blame game I have seen for some time. It was like two competing political rallies who happened to be sharing the same room due to a series of hilarious misunderstandings. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a Carry On film – it was all frighteningly real…

Disgrace in the chamber as former mayor tells councillor to ‘shut up’

Midway through a speech that listed more failings by Labour than it did achievements by Conservatives, Ashburton’s Cllr Eddie Arram brought the meeting to a chaotic halt. Responding to heckles from Thornton Heath Councillor Louisa Woodley, Arram (who was Mayor of Croydon until this year) looked up and shouted in an exceptionally condescending tone, ‘shut up, Louisa!’

The chamber descended into uproar, but Mayor Yvette Hopley initially took no action, ordering Labour’s councillors to be quiet and allow Arram to continue speaking. He attempted to do so, but Labour, led by Tony Newman, were now demanding an apology. Hopley instead informed Arram that he would not use such language again in the chamber. Newman and Labour didn’t think this was good enough, and continued to demand an apology and now a withdrawal, to no avail. Arram was allowed to finish his speech and no disciplinary measures were taken.

There are rumours that Cllr Arram will be deselected by his local party in Ashburton ward in advance of the 2014 elections. If the Ashburton Tories feel like taking advice from me, I say they can’t do it soon enough.

Labour and Conservative campaigns continue to place Hammerfield at their centre

In last week’s TPG, I pointed out how both the Tories and Labour were likely to position themselves around Westfield as next year’s election draws nearer. On Monday night, we saw a clearer picture of these two positions – ‘we the Conservatives brought you Westfield’ versus ‘we in Labour can make sure the development is done properly’.

Cllr Phil Thomas started the ball rolling by describing the investment as being ‘brought about by this Conservative administration’. Later, Cllr Vidhi Mohan moved a motion to welcome the investment, claiming total credit for the scheme for the Conservatives. Labour were quick to respond, with Stuart Collins speaking for their amendment and saying ‘you give the impression over there that the work is done’.

Labour’s proposed amendment, they claimed, would have ‘praised all those involved with the securing of the development’. Cllr Toni Letts added to the impression that Labour wishes to be seen as the party who can make sure Hammerfield has a positive impact on the town by saying that she and Tony Newman, not the Conservatives, had visited Newham to compare the agreement that Croydon Council had gained with what Newham Council secured when Westfield began their Stratford development.

As I have so often done, I turned left

Riesco sale falls flat – war of words ensues

The news that the first items of Riesco porcelain being auctioned in Hong Kong had sold for a disappointing sum did not go unnoticed. Cllr Tony Newman claimed he had been advised that after fees, less than £7 million had been raised so far. ‘There is a catastrophic funding black hole in the Fairfield Halls refurbishment – how will this be filled?’ he asked, in a rare instance of anyone, Labour or Conservative, asking an actual question that night.

What followed was a PMQs style exchange of insults and point-scoring, with Fisher saying the reason Labour were ‘so quiet about the Fairfield Halls’ was because they ‘are not committed to funding them’. Newman, in response, quoted Harold Macmillan by accusing the Tories of ‘selling off the family silver’ and said they should ‘hang their heads in shame’.

Fisher, fired up and on combative form, replied: ‘I’ve lost no sleep over resigning from the Museums Association,’ a statement which earned cries of concern from the public gallery, but Fisher went on to explain he had been unconvinced by the grants and benefits that Croydon’s membership of the MA actually earned. He continued: ‘when it comes to hanging heads in shame and flogging things off, Labour made the deal of the century in the Decade of Despair and got into bed with Minerva’. Referring to Labour’s control of the council between 1994 and 2006 as a ‘decade of despair’ may have been hyperbole, but it was interesting to see the council’s long-standing feud with Minerva enter even the Riesco debate. With the items all now either sold or still on sale, it does appear that this chapter of Croydon’s history is quite literally all over bar the shouting.

Tribalism stifles even the slightest chances for a proper debate – and provides a surreal throwback to 1970s Moscow

Cllr Adam Kellett gave a polished performance and provided a rare break from explicit party loggerheads by contrasting the attitude of The Croydon Partnership with that of Minerva. While the former seems ‘invested in helping Croydon’s regeneration’, he said, ‘Minerva is sitting on empty property around us.’ The criticism follows months of tension between the council and the property company. Minerva, who owns the former Allders site, was accused by Katharine Street sources of ‘pulling a fast one’ when it came to the controversial Croydon Village Outlet’s rapid establishment on the site. Last week, when Hammerfield was given the all-clear by the council, it was Minerva who threatened a legal challenge if the development went ahead.

A discussion of these issues was not forthcoming, however. After a few words agreeing with Councillor Kellett’s remarks on Minerva, council leader Mike Fisher chose to return to business as usual and launch an attack on Tony Newman and Croydon Labour for ‘getting into bed with Minerva in the first place’ – to which Newman muttered ‘you signed an agreement with them’. Tory cheers and Labour jeers were, as ever, in abundance. It was the closest we came to a big-picture discussion of Croydon’s regeneration all night, and once again it was denied us by tribalism.

At the end of the evening, the Conservative group indulged in a standing ovation for Mike Fisher. The scene of the councillors and their supporters in the public gallery whooping, clapping and banging loudly against the furniture would not have been out of place at a late-Brezhnev-era Soviet Party Congress. The Labour group responded with a somewhat childish show of mimicry, standing up and clapping Fisher themselves once the display of state-sanctioned ecstasy had come to an end. Afterwards, one Labour councillor was heard saying ‘that has to be the first time we’ve clapped him [Fisher] just for being so bad’.

If that was the way things always worked, there would have been applause from the public gallery throughout Monday night’s proceedings.

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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  • Stephen Mann

    Very interesting observations Tom as always. The handling of the “shut up” incident was poor. I would have hoped, even if it were a Labour mayor that if that came from Labour benches that the remark would have been withdrawn. No need for it and only serves to undermine local government.

    One thing that you haven’t covered. (Not certain if you noticed it) but the mix of applause and silence from Conservative benches when Fisher sat down.

    Following the Croydon South debacle (which didn’t get brought up much surprisingly), has he lost the support of some of his colleagues? The next few months will be very interesting indeed.

  • Anne Giles

    He has not lost the support of his colleagues at all. Most of us want him to remain as leader of the Council. Preferred that to having him as MP.

    • Stephen Mann

      Maybe amongst the rank and file. That’s not what it looked like in the chamber. Mixtures of applause vs silence from the backbenches.

      • Anne Giles

        The general opinion of Tory Councillors I have spoken to since the meeting was that Labour people behaved very badly.