What’s happening to our democracy? Croydon deserves better

By - Monday 25th April, 2016

Conservative councillor James Thompson objects to the conduct of Croydon Council meetings, and has some suggested improvements

The Labour front bench at last Monday’s meeting.
Photo author’s own.

I’m approaching two years as a councillor and it’s been an enlightening period to say the least. From the outset it’s been clear to me that change is needed. When Council Leader Tony Newman stands up and ums and errs for five minutes, failing to answer a simple yes-or-no question, it sets a damning precedent for the rest of the cabinet. This Labour administration has spoken about a need for openness and transparency, something which as a classical liberal I welcome, but this has repeatedly failed to materialise in the chamber. For me, last Monday really was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Context is everything. We have a ruling council administration that has spoken very publicly about the need to move away from Punch and Judy politics and to act in the best interests of residents. So you would anticipate, in the meeting prior to when reforms are expected to be announced, that councillors would be on their best behaviour and act in a manner befitting of the people of Croydon. The opposite was true last Monday.

It wasn’t until 45 minutes after the scheduled start of the meeting that we actually got onto the business of the very important Fairfield Halls petition (you can watch the debate online here). Due to a convenient technical fault the video starts during the last sentence of the speech by Andy Hylton, the lead campaigner. Despite protestations from Conservative councillors, Andy was not allowed to repeat his speech and so the two additional rooms full of concerned campaigners were stopped from listening to their own debate. So much for openness and transparency! After a few minutes of opposition councillors questioning councillor Newman, the Labour Chief Whip orchestrated a ‘closure motion’ to stop us from questioning any of the other portfolios. No questions allowed on parking, schools, green garden waste or any other area of concern. It is one thing for the cabinet to fail to answer questions as they so usually do, it is quite another to not allow us to question them at all.

Time and again there have been questions unanswered, debate motions altered, and members of the public silenced

Things didn’t improve with the debate motions, amendments made to amendments, sensible motions changed in order to try to make them redundant. I don’t expect each side to make it easy for one another, but as an administration you ought to stand up and be counted for the decisions and choices that you make. Time and again there have been questions unanswered, debate motions altered due to the power of holding a majority, and members of the public silenced, councillor Fitzsimons even calling for some to be thrown out of the public gallery merely for challenging the regime’s decisions on Fairfield. Is this the fair and democratic regime that the residents of Croydon deserve?

You would expect that something as tame as ‘ward matters’, where councillors give an update on their areas, would at least give some respite. Yet in councillor Lewis’ speech, we saw a blatant breach of purdah rules. The chief executive and mayor eventually stepped in after strong concerns were raised from the Conservative benches, to warn councillor Lewis to stop, to which he paid next to no attention and carried on. Eventually he was forced to sit down and end his speech. We in the Conservatives try to follow the rules, but here Labour refused to obey them. When councillor Lewis (who is Labour’s Chief Whip) ignores them, then you know that transparency has died in Croydon. That he was able to break the rules of purdah without any ramifications goes against the notion of a free and equal democracy.

Coming out of the chamber the lingering image that stuck in my head was of councillor Newman laughing hysterically after listening to councillor Avis’ mocking ward speech. When issues such as the closure of Fairfield Halls are so pertinent and we’re not allowed to raise questions to the cabinet, with councillors allowed to make valueless speeches on their wards, something is seriously wrong.

Ward matters shouldn’t be discussed when more time is needed to question the cabinet

So where do we go from here? Talks are on-going about what needs to change, but I believe that three fundamental issues need addressing:

1. Enforcement that the leader and cabinet must answer questions asked without resorting to propaganda and name-calling. The number of times that you hear the leader and cabinet blaming either the national government or previous administrations is astounding; we just want the question answered. Mayors need to strictly enforce these rules and ensure that meetings are conducted in the right way. This is difficult when appointed on party lines, but a clear distinction needs to be drawn.

2. Debate motions that are focused solely on Croydon. Last Monday saw us debate the merits of Croydon staying in the EU, which last time I checked each resident has their say and it is not for Croydon council to decide. We in the Conservatives have also been guilty of this in the past, but I will personally oppose any suggestion that we do this again in future and I know that many of my party colleagues agree.

3. Ward matters scrapped. If councillors have specific ward issues that they wish to raise then these should be done so either by email, in written questions (the limit upon which ought to be removed) or in the chamber. Whilst useful for maiden speeches, these are not a productive use of time with three from each side every meeting simply talking about what goes on in their ward. In the context of not having enough time to question the cabinet, this could easily be removed so that we have more time to scrutinise those making the tough calls in Croydon.

On Monday I was ashamed to have been a witness to such proceedings. Conduct on both sides of the chamber is often far from productive, and it needs to change. This was the worst meeting that I have been to and I hope for the residents of Croydon that things finally change for the better. Change comes from the top, and I hope that councillor Newman can for once follow his own rhetoric and lead by example.

James Thompson

James Thompson

James has lived in Croydon his whole life. He is a firm believer in open and honest debate and currently serves as Conservative Councillor for Coulsdon East

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  • trypewriter

    Wasn’t the Riesco sale justified by the Fairfield Refurb? What’s in the kitty from the sale? #wheresthemoney #followthemoney

  • Sean Creighton

    Fundamental changes are needed to the way the Council Committee and full meeting operate. The same applied when the Conservatives were in power up to May 2014. As I explained at the Save Our Fairfield public meeting the problem lies with the Cabinet system with an all powerful Leader. That must go and a there be a return to the pre-Cabinet system that ensured more involvement in decision making by all Councillors.

    • Peter Staveley

      For all the reasons that Sean has stated I too fully support the return to the Committee system. Indeed I know of at least 3 councils in England who have started the process to return to that system.

  • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

    I was at the Fairfield Halls Meeting and one thing that surprised and upset me, was the way the vote was taken at the end. I have been to previous controversial council meeting in Woking, where Councillors were obliged to vote by raising their hands. In one of the council rooms with the live feed, it sounded as though the voices in favour of the petition were louder than those against, and then the mayor told us that the motion/petition had been defeated. I daresay that this was the case (there was probably a lot of vocal support from the public gallery in favour of the petition) and it was already clear from the rather embarrasingly short debate, that the matter was going to be settled on party lines. However, it didn’t sound or look at all democratic and in such contexts I believe appearances do matter. At least if individual councillors have to raise their hands to vote, they are seen to be individually accountable, and those watching in the public gallery or live feed, have clear visual evidence of how the vote has gone. I would be interested to know if the rather unsatisfactory vocal vote register is the usual method of taking votes at Croydon Council and if so whether there would be any support amongst Croydon’s current crop of Councillors for changing this process.