Jason Perry: In Croydon, hope was the key to our success

3 Jun

Jason Perry is the newly-elected Executive Mayor of Croydon.

As many of the results from the local elections were announced on the next morning, those watching BBC London News would be forgiven for thinking that the picture for the Conservative Party in London was almost entirely negative. But over the next four days, fantastic gains were announced, including in Enfield, in Harrow, and eventually, in Croydon.

I am so proud to have been elected Mayor of this great Borough, ending eight years of Labour administration. Not only that, but we made historic gains on the Council, including taking three seats out of four in New Addington – previously a Labour stronghold.

This election was personal to me. Croydon is my home, it’s the place where my parents raised me, and the place where my wife and I chose to raise our own children. This Borough has given me so many opportunities throughout my life. I was born on a Council estate and went to a great local school. My parents’ Council home in Hamsey Green enabled them to set up a small family business, which I ran myself prior to becoming Mayor.

Anybody who has followed local politics over the last couple of years will know about the monumental failures of Croydon’s Labour-run Council:

  • £1.6 billion pounds of debt;
  • £200m lent to their own property developer which went bust;
  • £76 million spent on the botched refurbishment of a concert hall;
  • Buying a hotel for £30 million and selling it for a £5 million loss;
  • Council tenants – like I used to be – living in “slum housing”;
  • Vast swathes of cuts like never before to our public services, including cutting up to £1,500 from people’s Council Tax Support.

These failures naturally drew some traditional supporters away from Labour. But campaigning on a message of negativity is not enough. Labour campaigned hard on their message of taking Croydon in a “New Direction,” with an experienced Mayoral candidate in Val Shawcross.

In order to win over previous Labour voters, and take those vital second-preference votes from people voting Green, Lib Dem, or Independent, we had to prove that the local Conservatives were the right team to lead the Borough forwards. Our campaign of hope did just that.

We showed that we would focus on residents’ priorities by pledging to restore the Graffiti Removal Team which Labour axed. We proved to residents that a Conservative Council would listen to local people by promising to reform our planning system. And – echoing a similar Conservative campaign in Kidsgrove – I pledged to re-open a Leisure Centre in Purley that the previous Labour administration shut. I am delighted to say that during my first week as Mayor, I have hit the ground running, and taken tangible action to deliver on all three of these things.

The message of hope also meant that our supporters and volunteers had a positive message to get excited about. Every leaflet that a deliverer put through a letterbox was like a brick towards the building of a better Croydon. Canvassers were able to talk about our plans to provide mentors for young people excluded from school. Or to adopt a Tenants’ Charter that will meaningfully improve housing conditions for council tenants. The campaign was a positive and optimistic one, and winning by just under 600 votes (out of the 95,000 cast) was a testament to the hard work put in by so many. Our message resonated across the Borough, with swings in some wards of over 12 per cent towards the Conservatives.

Over the next four years, I will work collaboratively with local councillors of all parties to restore real hope and pride in our Borough. Our biggest challenges lie ahead – including sorting out the Council’s debt and delivering a large-scale regeneration of our neglected Town Centre. But Croydon has overcome large challenges before, and I know that our best days still lie ahead.

Stephen Greenhalgh: Directly elected mayors? Croydon is showing us the way.

18 Apr

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities. He is a former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

The Blair era brought about a lot of constitutional reform – and one of those reforms was the introduction of the directly-elected mayor in London boroughs. Only four of London’s 32 councils adopted this structure: Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets. However, Croydon will now also be governed by this system after an effective grassroots campaign raised a 20,000 signature petition (of which 17,000 were unique and valid). The failing Croydon Labour council did its utmost to stop an election taking place and deliberately misinterpreted the Covid regulations to claim the referendum could not be held until 2022.

In the end a referendum for a directly elected mayor was held last year and every single ward in the Borough voted for change and to move to a Directly Elected Mayor for Croydon. 80 per cent of residents backed this change, despite Croydon Labour’s campaign to stick with the current failed system. In the meantime, the Labour-run council was officially declared bankrupt last year. This Labour council ran up a staggering £1.5 billion debt and is the first London Council to go bust in 20 years. The council’s external auditors highlighted in their damning report that the council had “not responded promptly to previous audit recommendations and concerns…” and that “…numerous opportunities have been missed in recent years to tackle the Council’s financial position.”

The borough received a £120m government bailout last year, the biggest to a UK council, but continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. An allegation of fraud has also been made to police over the £67.5m revamp of Fairfield Halls and an investigation has just been announced, with a firm specialising in ‘investigating issues relating to fraud, corruption, money laundering and embezzlement’ appointed to handle it. It is a sorry record, and it is no wonder that Croydon Council’s Leader, Labour’s Cllr Hamida Alia, has announced she will be standing down in May.

Cllr Jason Perry who leads the Conservative opposition group on the council is the Conservative mayoral candidate. Jason is a proud Croydonian, born and bred, who wants to restore pride in Croydon. He faces seasoned London politician, Val Shawcross, who was the council leader in the 1990s and has spent twenty years at City Hall.

Despite being a former council leader for 6 years, I am a huge advocate of directly elected borough mayors. Here are some of the failings of the current council leader system:

  • Zero accountability. No one knows who is responsible for major decisions, such as raising Council Tax.
  • Buck passing. Council leaders often fail to fix local problems like the emergency closure of Hammersmith Bridge or a knife crime epidemic. Instead, the council leader passes the buck and prefers to play the political blame game when he or she should be taking action.
  • Undemocratic. In Hammersmith & Fulham, the current Leader of the Council is elected by two small groups: the residents of Hammersmith Broadway ward and their own Labour colleagues.

Mayors matter. Mayors can’t hide behind others – the buck always stops with them. A directly-elected Mayor would have a clear mandate to deliver his promises. A directly-elected Mayor would be a visible local champion. A directly-elected Mayor can work with councillors from all parties who want to improve local services for residents – not just those from their own party.

If a directly-elected Mayor doesn’t deliver on his promises and fix problems – like the closure of Hammersmith Bridge to all road vehicles including buses and ambulances for nearly three years – or knife crime – then voters can vote them out after four years. A Mayor has to listen to every single ward – even safe ones – as every vote counts equally. This was the main issue in Croydon as Labour could win the council while ignoring (and in fact deliberately dumping on) much of the borough as all the marginal wards are in Croydon Central (Croydon South is almost all Conservative and Croydon North all Labour).

Finally, we are more likely to win under a Mayoral system than under a ward system as turnout in Conservative wards tends to be higher than in Labour ones. I hope where Croydon has gone, more London boroughs will follow.

Local elections: What to look out for in London

11 Apr

A lot can change between now and May 5th so any predictions at this stage must be rather tentative. One that most pundits might regard as safe is that the Conservatives face a drubbing in London – where all the 32 boroughs have full council elections taking place. I can see why some would envisage a pretty dire outlook. For some years Conservatives have been in decline in the capital relative to the rest of the country. At the General Election in 2019, the only seat Labour gained anywhere in the country was Putney. Those of us who look to economic determinism to explain electoral trends note that home ownership has become ever less affordable in London. What new development there is, often tends to be awful tower blocks – unsuitable for those wishing to settle down and start a family. Two pretty good predicators of someone voting Conservative are if they are owner-occupiers – and married with an ambition to have children. These natural Tory voters are being driven out of London.

Then there is the polling. When these seats were last contested four years ago, Labour won 44 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives, 29 per cent. So a Labour lead of 15 per cent. At that time the Conservatives and Labour were level pegging in the opinion polls nationally. In the “projected national equivalent vote share” – crunched by Rallings & Trasher – the Conservatives are now on 37 per cent to 36 per cent for Labour, when looking at the predicted council election results across the country. Most recent opinion polls show Labour ahead by around five points. A couple of London polls have been undertaken. One had a Labour lead of 17 points. Another, more recent one, gave a Labour lead of 30 points.

Furthermore, all Labour really need to have perceived to have triumphed is to gain Wandsworth. Last time round 26 Labour councillors were elected there, with 33 Conservatives. Labour only need a swing of a couple of points to take over.  For decades Wandsworth has not only been Conservative-run, but much more unusually, has practiced Conservative policies. Residents have noticed how the services have been efficient and the tax burden has been low. Thus the elections results have defied political gravity. There is a superstition that:

“If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”

Many Conservatives feel there is a similar mythical quality about presiding at Wandsworth Town Hall. Amidst the devastation of the 1990 local election results, Ken Baker, the Conservative Party Chairman, took to the airwaves to highlight that Wandsworth have stayed blue. The media agreed that was an important boost for Margaret Thatcher.

Might the old magic still be there? Perhaps. Wandsworth has cut the Council Tax by one per cent. By contrast, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has increased his precept by 8.8 per cent. That gives a point of relevance and substance to raise on the doorstep so far as the cost of living is concerned.

Some Conservative councils increase the Council Tax by the maximum allowed. Then shrug and say it would be “impossible” to do otherwise. That is not the Wandsworth way.

Barnet would be Labour’s next target. It would also have symbolic importance. They were hoping to win last time but were punished by Jewish voters (and their friends and neighbours) for the way that anti-semitism had flourished in the party under Jeremy Corbyn. Victory for Labour in Barnet would mean they could claim to have been forgiven.

If Labour really did as well as some of the polling implies, they would sweep to power in Westminster and Hillington – which includes the Prime Minister’s constituency. I am sceptical this will be achieved.

Indeed, my expectation is that Labour will not make overall progress in London. Gains in some places will be offset by losses elsewhere. I have spoken, off the record, to a number of seasoned Conservative campaigners across London who have sounded quietly confident. Some pundits may respond with derision. But it is worth noting that in the election for Mayor of London last year the gap narrowed. Shaun Bailey lost by a narrower margin than Zac Goldsmith had five years earlier. In the final round, Khan was ahead by 10.4 per cent. On first preferences, it was 4.7 per cent. Polling for last year’s contest had put Khan ahead to 20 per cent or 30 per cent.

Ditching Corbyn might not be a benefit to Labour in London in local elections. Turnout is key. Most people didn’t vote last time (with the exception of Richmond upon Thames which achieved a 51.4 per cent turnout; well done them.) Corbyn as Leader gave staunch socialists the motivation to vote. Some to even join the Labour Party and campaign. Some of that (ahem) momentum has dissipated.

Khan is probably becoming a liability to his party – with his fetish for ever higher tower blocks and Council Tax precepts, combined with his mismanagement of policing and transport.

Four years ago there was considerable anger in London concerning Brexit. Many voters from central and eastern Europe who had previously been Conservatives considered it as an attack – that Britain had turned inwards. Might the leading role of the UK in supporting Ukraine change that narrative?

So where might a Conservative revival in the capital manifest itself? In several boroughs, in the words of Yazz, “the only way is up.” Last time around no Conservative councillors were elected in Barking and Dagenham, Haringey, Islington, Lewisham, Newham or Southwark. Lambeth only returned one Conservative councillor, Tower Hamlets two, Brent three. But this territory has not been abandoned. In Newham, for example, the Conservatives are campaigning with vigour. It was disappointing that in Barking and Dagenham the Conservatives have only put up 30 candidates for the 51 seats. Yet even there I am assured there is hope: (“Just keep a look out for Eastbrook & Rush Green ward,” comes a whisper.)

Sutton now has two Conservative MPs and there is optimism the Lib Dems could be ousted from the Council. The northern part of the borough is pretty working class – no shortage of white van men. A majority from Sutton voted Leave in the EU referendum.

Harrow is another borough with a decent chance of a Conservative gain. There is a big aspirational Asian vote – Gujaratis with a keen enterprising zeal – that Labour can no longer take for granted.

Enfield is a borough where the Conservatives make well gain some seats – although probably not enough to sweep to victory. Redbridge and Camden are other places where Labour has big majorities but has been carrying out some unpopular local policies.  Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Redbridge, approval of tower blocks in the case of Camden. Conservatives are campaigning energetically on these and other matters. They may well pick up a few seats.

Finally, there is Croydon where the Labour council has combined profligacy – forcing itself into bankruptcy – while proving an appalling landlord with council tenants left in conditions of the most shocking squalor.

So I suspect rumours of the impending demise of London Conservatives have been exaggerated. We shall find out soon enough…

Jason Perry: Why I am standing to be the directly-elected Mayor of Croydon

7 Dec

Cllr Jason Perry is the Leader of the Opposition on Croydon Council and the Conservative Candidate to be Croydon’s first directly-elected Mayor in May 2022.

In recent years, Croydon has found itself mentioned more and more frequently in ConservativeHome articles – and sadly never for a good reason.

Croydon’s Labour-run Council was officially declared bankrupt last year, having accrued well over £1.5 billion in debt – the first London Council to go bust in 20 years. The failure of Croydon Labour to manage the Council’s finances since 2014 has seen them borrowing an outrageous £15,000 every single hour, and recently led to it begging the Conservative Government for a £120 million bailout just to keep the lights on.

Labour loaned over £200 million of taxpayer money to their wholly Council-owned property developer ‘Brick by Brick’, who then proceeded to ride roughshod over local residents concerns, building on their green spaces and amenity land. To add insult to injury, that land was, more often than not, given to them for free by the Labour Council. But, their monopoly games did not stop there – going on to borrow millions of ££ to waste on their choices, £30 million on a town centre hotel, £50 million to buy a shopping precinct, and £76 million spent on a botched refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls arts complex – where they didn’t even change the worn seats and the roof still leaks! All whilst slashing basic services and hiking Council Tax levels to one of the highest in the country.

But worse than all of that: Labour did this whilst completely ignoring warnings from the auditors, the Conservative Opposition, and desperate local residents. We all saw it coming, we warned Labour time and time again, but they accused us of scaremongering – all for fear of us being proven right. What short-sighted egotism. It’s exactly that kind of arrogant approach that leads people to despise politicians.

In national politics the sums bandied about to fund services are huge – a few billion here and a few billion there – it’s hard for most of us to comprehend what it means in reality when financial management goes wrong, but residents in Croydon have been forced to find out the hard way. To reiterate, Croydon’s failing Labour Council has borrowed £15,000 per hour since coming into office in 2014, and yet our bins aren’t being emptied; fly-tipping and rubbish is left to pile high on our streets; the grass in our parks and cemeteries isn’t cut; graffiti is no longer cleaned – in short, our communities look increasingly abandoned.

But it’s the most vulnerable in our borough that Labour’s cuts are hitting hardest. Under Labour, the Council Tax Support Scheme – which reduces Council Tax for the most vulnerable residents – is set to be cut by £5.7m, affecting an estimated 20,000 households. They’ve slashed the welfare team, and some 7,000 residents are seeing their social care packages cut. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Croydon’s problems are not just financial. Recently, one of our Council candidates went to see Raymond, who lives in a sheltered housing block in the north of the borough. He contacted us because he was desperate to expose the appalling conditions of his Council-managed block. We found mouldy walls, water-damaged ceilings, missing fire extinguishers, and more. He told us how he was forced to go for nine weeks without any heating or hot water. Despite all of this, his local Labour Councillors have been absent throughout, having only knocked on his door a single time in the last decade (during an election week).

Raymond’s story would be bad enough if it were a one-off, but this has come months after terrible conditions in another block of Council flats were exposed on ITV’s Surviving Squalor, and at the same time as reports about a third block in West Croydon are beginning to surface. This is not the fault of the bankruptcy: this is the result of sheer systemic incompetence, as well as absent Labour Councillors who ignore residents’ pleas for help, thinking they’ll win their ‘safe’ seats next time around anyway.

And it’s for all these reasons that just over a month ago, every single ward in the Borough voted in a referendum for change – and voted to move to a Directly Elected Mayor for Croydon. 80 per cent of residents backed this change, despite Croydon Labour’s campaign to stick with the current failed system. Sick and tired of being ignored, tens of thousands of local people voted for change – and if they choose to elect me to be that Mayor in May 2022, change is exactly what they’ll get. A change for the better, for Croydon.

I am proud to be a Croydonian, born and bred. I live in South Croydon with my family and serve as a local Councillor there. I spent much of my youth in Thornton Heath and Crystal Palace visiting friends and family, and had my first job working in a warehouse in South Norwood.

Croydon has always been my home, and that is why I am both humbled and proud to be standing to be Croydon’s first directly-elected Mayor. Croydon is a fantastic place to live and work, but the choices made by the current failing Labour Council have broken our borough with bankruptcy, poor planning, and filthy streets.

It doesn’t need to be that way. I want to restore our pride in Croydon. Croydon is a town with great potential, and brimming with fantastic people. As Mayor, I will listen to our diverse communities and respect the distinct character of our local areas, ensuring that nobody feels held back or taken for granted anymore.

My message to local residents is this: in May 2022, they need to do more than just hope for a better Croydon – they’ve got to vote for one!

Kevin Davis: A guide to the mayoral contests in London next year

29 Oct

Cllr Kevin Davis is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Kingston Council.

Lyndon B Johnson once said:

“When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.”

At the 2022 London Borough elections, Mayors could be taking centre stage. Borough Mayors are not new. There are four London Borough Mayors in existence currently (Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets) and there is soon to be a fifth following the recent referendum in Croydon.

To date, changes to the governance of London Boroughs to mayors have come about through the referendum process where public acclamation calls for the referendum to change the system of governance. Often these acclamations are generated by political activists (as in Croydon) but more rarely they are genuine grassroots campaigns, often driven by dissatisfaction with the local political system. It is a little known and little exercised power, but a council does not need to hold a referendum to introduce a directly elected Mayor. The council can merely trigger a motion and with a simple majority hold a mayoral election within 6 months of that date.

Tower Hamlets has always brought us political interest and it will continue to do so next year. Whilst Mayor Biggs is now secure in his position within the local Labour party, there are stirrings of a resurgence of support for the former Mayor, Lutfur Rahman. Rahman was once the Labour Mayoral candidate and then was elected in 2010 as an independent. After various investigations, he was banned from public office for five years, during which time he has been resurrecting his independence movement for another run against Mayor Biggs. In a recent by-election in Tower Hamlets, the new Aspire party of Rahman didn’t just win but crushed the Labour candidate, reversing the position at the 2018 elections. Rahman is back and he looks like he could be Mayor again.

In Croydon, we have a very hard-to-read picture. Croydon is bust. No money. Government intervention and sackings have created a cocktail which the Conservatives should be able to take advantage of. We all love to think residents pay attention to what is happening to their council and you would hope that, in this case, there is a genuine mood for change. The Conservatives have already selected their hyper-local and current Conservative Leader as a candidate and this has left the Labour party looking somewhat flat-footed as it is suggested they will not be selecting a candidate until January – plenty of time for the Conservatives to frame the debate and get campaigning. The money must be on the current Labour leader being selected, but given the backdrop of council finances and the fact that their leader has just spent weeks arguing why there should not be a Mayor in the first place, it makes a tricky selection. Based on all these factors and the results of the recent London mayoral elections in Croydon, the Conservatives must start as favourites to win the election.

Despite the recent Croydon referendum, elsewhere, elected Mayors have not been the most popular choice of governance for councils. The reforms of the Local Government Act 2000 and the subsequent amendments under the Cameron Government have created an incredibly mixed and, some would argue, chaotic landscape of Local Government in the UK. There are strong leaders, leaders and cabinet, committee systems, and mayors. It is no wonder that the public seems confused, and at times angry, with local politicians whenever they try to engage with their Council. In London Boroughs it has become like bin collections – no two ways of collecting the bins are the same.

But then you need to ask a question. Whilst we cannot gerrymander the electoral system, is it possible that in some Boroughs the Conservatives could win the Mayoralty when they might not win the majority of Councillors? I am sure, with the changing demographics of London, this is a calculation that Croydon Conservatives will have made. If Croydon were to prove to us that Conservatives can win in a Borough that has been drifting towards Labour for a considerable number of years and has the character of an outer/inner London Borough, then where else would this work?

We know the Government has now moved regulations to move all Mayoral elections to “first past the post” (FPTP). If you took the GLA elections and applied them to the Boroughs on a FPTP basis, then the good news is we would win an additional six boroughs – Croydon, Sutton, Richmond, Kingston, Harrow, and Enfield. However, we would lose Westminster. In fact, we would end up with control of 13 London Boroughs in total – probably the best haul for a few decades. The bad news is we would lose Westminster City Council to Labour.

Next year’s elections in the five Mayoral Boroughs will be watched, if only because we know that Michael Gove is something of a fan of Mayors. There are rumours that he would like to see more, especially the wider strategic Metro Mayors. This makes me wonder whether Gove might move to a default system of governance for councils of directly elected Mayors and actually use referendums as a tool to adopt some other system if residents want it. Whilst there will be many local politicians who would be against such an idea, there are many voters who would welcome the clarity.

Harry Fone: Vague titles and virtue signalling. The municipal “non jobs” are back in force.

7 Sep

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Continuing the theme from my last column, I’ve unearthed another five council contracts which show that before pleading poverty and hiking tax, local authorities could be rooting out wasteful spending.

Let’s start with a serial offender when it comes to profligacy. Despite being in debt to the tune of £1.5 billion, Croydon Council tendered a contract worth the best part of £10,000 for a “Cultural Transformation Engagement Programme”. If you think the title is suitably vague wait till you read the description:

“The Council is looking for an experienced Organisation Development provider to work with them to co-design and co-deliver a rapid programme of engagement events across the whole organisation to further confirm the culture we are trying to change from and “cross the threshold” into our new way of thinking, being and working”.

Have you ever heard such a load of nonsense? This may be a relatively small sum of money in the scheme of things, but without doubt, Croydon council has more pressing matters at hand, such as finding funds for essential services.

Not to be outdone, Bedford Borough Council put calls out for the provision of “Weight Management Services for Faith Groups”. According to the authority:

“During the Coronavirus pandemic, Bedford Borough Council Public Health team has built relationships with local faith communities and faith leaders. We would like to build on this by offering further support outside of COVID, and focussing on healthy weight”.

Several questions spring to mind. Why is this the business of the council? It certainly doesn’t seem like a statutory responsibility to me. Why is it focussing seemingly solely on churches? Shouldn’t other groups in the community be included? Given the mess that covid has caused, surely Bedford council has better things to focus its time and resources on. It’s not just Bedford though. Nearby Northamptonshire County Council has similar contracts worth £1 million.

Meanwhile, in Essex, the county council has thought it wise to splurge £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash “Tackling Cycling Inequalities”. The contract states:

“Essex Pedal Power scheme is focused on low-income communities where the need is highest, and the benefits of becoming regularly active through cycling are greatest.”

This is a noble cause but is it the role of a county council? Let’s not forget either, that Essex regularly tops the tables in the TaxPayers’ Alliance Town Hall Rich List series. In 2019-20 it had 40 employees receiving remuneration in excess of £100,000 – the highest in the entire country. Axing some of these staff would be a good way to pay for the scheme if it must go ahead.

Of course it’s unfortunate that not everyone can afford a bicycle. But this is something that would be much better left to private charity.

To Waltham Forest now and another contender for “Most Vague Contract Title”. The borough is set to spend over £60,000 on “Consultancy support for a strategic reset” which seeks to:

“Shape [its] strategic activity over the next year, creating a compelling narrative, working with management team to define and agree priorities and establishing the strategic programme that will enable us to deliver our priorities effectively.”

Just like the title, the contract’s description is wishy-washy. The council needs to set clear objectives of what success looks like so that taxpayers can judge the results for themselves. Waltham increased council tax by five per cent this year. One would hope that this “strategic reset” will focus on how to make savings and ramp up efficiency.

In what many would deem as virtue signalling, Lambeth, Brighton, and North Tyneside councils are set to spend a total of £130,000 towards citizen’s assemblies on climate change. In each case, the authorities are seeking the views of residents on how to reduce carbon emissions. Two thoughts spring to mind. Firstly, if they want to get as many views as possible, why not just email every council taxpayer and ask them to complete a simple online form? The costs would be relatively minimal. Secondly, wouldn’t it be better to spend this money on upgrading existing infrastructure? Replacing diesel vehicles with electric or hybrid ones would be a good and obvious way to reduce harmful emissions.

These examples are just a small selection of contracts I found after a few hours of searching. Thousands more are out there, likely containing more unnecessary spending. That’s why I need your help to root them out. Please send me an email with your findings and the TaxPayers’ Alliance will be happy to investigate further.

Robert Ward: Applying the principles of Sherlock Holmes to scrutinise Croydon Council

16 Jul

Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

As opposition lead on Croydon Council scrutiny, there have been times in the last three years when I wished for the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes. I suspect, though, that even he would have been challenged to figure out the extent of the shortcomings of Croydon Council. Without access to information, we are all helpless.

At first sight, the enhanced powers of scrutiny members to access information should have solved the case without the need ever to knock on the door of 221b Baker Street at dead of night. The dogged but unimaginative Inspector Lestrade would have cracked the case by lunchtime. Why did it take so long for the truth to come out?

There is no simple answer, but restricted access to information is one reason. According to the Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities “the prevailing organisational culture, behaviours and attitudes of an authority will largely determine whether its scrutiny function succeeds or fails”. A culture of secrecy sets scrutiny up for failure. Breaking down secrecy barriers is crucial to turning things around.

More from the Statutory Guidance:

“Scrutiny members should have access to a regularly available source of key information about the management of the authority”.

That such information must exist should not be a matter of debate. An administration cannot pretend to be in control of an organisation without it. The only question is whether they are willing to share it.

Yet a dashboard of diagnostic data is ineffective without contextual knowledge. Councillors need help to make sense of what they are looking at. Without understanding, it is all too easy for councillors to make vague, unfocussed requests and for officers then to dismiss them as time-wasting or politically motivated fishing exercises. The truth may be a lack of understanding by the councillors, or a handy excuse for officers unwilling to share. What, after all, is wrong with a fishing exercise when it is fishy behaviour that you are trying to catch?

The upside for officers of well-informed councillors is reduced effort. Well-framed questions are a lot easier to answer. Back to the Statutory Guidance: “Authorities should consider whether seeking clarification from the information requester could help better target the request” and “Officers should speak to scrutiny members to ensure they understand the reasons why information is needed”. The latter should not be to seek out reasons for refusal, but to give a better answer.

Sherlock Holmes’ first literary case in Croydon was a murder in Upper Norwood. In The Sign of the Four there is the famous quote that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Councillors are not world-renowned, albeit imaginary detectives. They should not have to submit a succession of questions to eliminate all other possible options to get to the truth.

Questions clearly expressed should elicit a response in plain English. It is for officers to figure out how to give an informative and diagnostic answer, not for councillors to decode answers written in elliptical officer-speak or spend hours searching for gaps. Back to the Statutory Guidance: Authorities should “ensure the information is supplied in a format appropriate to the recipient’s needs”.

Unlike the characters in Conan Doyle’s books, several of which were written during the years he lived in Croydon, the Council “should adopt a default position of sharing the information they hold, on request, with scrutiny committee members”. What is more, even if information cannot be shared publicly, the Council “should give serious consideration to whether that information could be shared in closed session”.

But enough of the Statutory Guidance – I recommend you read it for yourself; here is my quick assessment guide of your access to information service:

  • Do you have a dashboard with comparative performance data?
  • Is there a presumption that requested information will be provided?
  • Is provision as a confidential item always considered for what cannot be shared publicly?
  • Do councillors know how a request should be made and to whom?
  • Are there time limits on provision of responses?
  • Is performance against those time limits monitored and published at least annually?
  • Is there an appeal process for refusals?
  • Are written reasons for refusal provided to the full committee, in public, on request?

At a more emotional level, if the response to information requests leaves you feeling like you are dealing with Professor Moriarty, you have a problem.

Harry Fone: Social distancing rules have pushed up the cost of council meetings

29 Jun

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

In recent weeks I’ve received a lot of correspondence from concerned taxpayers and councillors about the costs of holding covid compliant council meetings. During the pandemic, temporary legislation allowed local authorities to hold hybrid meetings – a mix of virtual and in-person meetings – in order for local government to function effectively.

Since May 7th, councils, by law, must hold meetings in person, despite the fact that social distancing guidelines are still in place. Many authorities lack the floor space to facilitate this and have effectively been forced to hire venues that do, at significant cost to the taxpayer.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council shelled out £6,000 to hold a recent meeting at a local exhibition venue. So too Sefton, Sheffield and Manchester, costing taxpayers £3,000, £10,000 and £7,000 respectively. Similarly, Portsmouth City Council bought £5,000 worth of AV equipment in order for its meeting to go ahead. Across England’s 330 plus councils, it’s very possible that the total bill to ensure meetings are covid compliant could be in excess of £1 million.

With many in the private sector adopting the financial and environmental benefits of video conferencing technology, it’s a massive shame that the temporary legislation couldn’t have been extended until social distancing restrictions are lifted. Councils aren’t to blame for this and many local leaders have called for hybrid meetings to continue. It’s not hard to see why – time and money could have been better utilised on frontline services.

A warm welcome?

Back in March, the government announced the Welcome Back Fund (WBF) “to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns”. £56 million has been allocated to local authorities in England to invest in everything from seating areas to parks.

I’m not a huge fan of the WBF. Yes, I want my town centre to look nice but there really isn’t a magic money tree. Given the devastating effects of covid we have to focus public cash on real priorities like adult social care and children’s services. Is this fund really a priority at a time like this? Put it another way, if you were struggling to pay your mortgage every month you wouldn’t splash out on fripperies would you?

Sheffield City Council was allocated some £520,216 from the fund and I have to question whether they’ve made the best decisions when it comes to spending taxpayers’ cash. The council has tendered two contracts, one to appoint a “media and PR agency” and the other a “creative agency” to promote the objectives of the WBF. The total value of these contracts is £135,000 – 26 per cent of allocated funding.

It begs the question, will taxpayers’ actually see any value from this? It seems quite ridiculous to me that such a large chunk of their budget will be splurged on ad men. Does the council really need two agencies to achieve its goals? Why not ask the public directly (for little to no cost) what they want by getting them to email their suggestions. Or why not go to businesses directly in the town centre and get their opinions?

Promising news from Croydon

At long last there’s a glimmer of hope for Croydon Council following the latest report from its Improvement and Assurance Panel. You may recall that the council ploughed £214 million into a housing company called Brick-by-Brick (BBB) which at last count had only built a handful of the homes it promised. This coupled with other serious failings led to Croydon Council declaring bankruptcy.

A brighter future is on the horizon though. The decision has been taken to continue with housing construction on some BBB sites but with the overarching goal to extract the company from all activities by October of this year. Additionally, a property developer is seeking to buy up BBB and a deal will hopefully be struck next month.

There are opportunities for further savings to be made too. The council has 313 external contracts worth around £200 million that are up for renewal this year. The Improvement and Assurance Panel described the council’s arrangements for ensuring that contracts deliver value as “poor.” So one would hope that in future negotiations they can both negotiate better deals and ensure that suppliers better fulfil their contractual obligations.

Croydon Council is by no means out of the woods. It’s only thanks to capital injections totalling £120 million from central government that there is a balanced budget this year. In all likelihood, residents will be paying for the council’s mistakes in the form of even higher council tax bills. Let’s hope Croydon residents get good value for money in future, especially since the newly appointed chief executive will be paid £192,000 a year.

Robert Ward: The three tests to see if your council is on the path to becoming another Croydon

22 Jun

Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

A study by management guru, Jim Collins, concluded that you start off on the path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of the organisation. The facts about Croydon Council are as brutal as it gets. There is a bookshelf full of reports, still being added to, following the Section 114 Notice, effectively declaring its bankruptcy. From the Non-statutory Review the Council is:

“Unfamiliar with taking and implementing difficult financial decisions and as a consequence it has engendered a culture of poor budget management and poor financial control.”

The Council’s failings were attributed to “poor leadership and poor management over a number of years.” The Report in the Public Interest euphemistically cited a “collective corporate blindness.”

To declare an interest, I was for the last three years, and am, the opposition Scrutiny lead. My response to the bankruptcy, like that of Council employees and Croydon residents, was anger and disbelief that the situation was so bad. My feelings had an extra edge because throughout the last three years I believed the Council was dysfunctional. I made those views known, but at the end of the day I did not take the crucial step of voting to refer decisions back for reconsideration.

As has emerged since the issuing of the Section 114 Notice, reality was worse than I had imagined. Dipping again into management-speak, if successful project management produces “no surprises”, each report on the Council’s failure has regularly produced not just surprises, but jaw droppers. The organisation appears to have had few business processes and did not take seriously those it had.

The mess was covered up by delay, obfuscation, and secrecy. That is a toxic mix, but on top of that, the Regina Road scandal revealed that far from being delivered a service, the council’s housing tenants were treated with contempt. Getting out of this mess is not going to be quick or easy, because it is not about easily fixable issues, it is about culture.

I dislike the use of ‘culture’ to describe a failing organisation. It puts a veneer of respectability around what is really a set of very bad habits. Contempt for customers, failure to follow proper processes, misleading those who try to find out what is going on, should not be dignified as ‘culture’. Whatever you call it, this is not something that can be changed quickly. To quote another management guru, culture eats strategy for lunch.

We now have the clarity of hindsight. The stock phrase is that we must learn lessons so that this never happens again. My personal view is that we need to re-think the approach to scrutiny, which is often expressed as that of a ‘critical friend’. That sounds very comfortable, but what do you do if your friend is an alcoholic? How long do you put up with denial or the faux outrage of “how dare you suggest I’ve been drinking”? How often do you give them the benefit of the doubt before calling the cops as they drive off, again, in an inebriated state?

For the moment may I offer fellow councillors three diagnostic tests.

Test 1 – The Freedom of Iinformation test

Quick and easy, put in a couple of Freedom of Information requests; I recommend using whatdotheyknow.com. Ask for simple things that every Council should have. Make sure you know what one looks like. If it comes back immediately, which it should, then you are in good shape. If nothing happens, or you get a document that is not a valid response then you have two indications – your FoI process does not work, and the council may not have a policy that it should have. Start to worry.

Test 2 – The complaints process test

Follow a few legitimate complaints. Complexity and delay are the failing council’s weapon of choice. A high proportion of residents, and councillors, can be relied upon to give up their complaint in the face of failure to respond and muddle. If you do not see a working complaints process, worry more.

Test 3 – The show-me test

Pick a matter of some importance, say, a significant decision on service delivery. The Council report will claim data gathering, analysis and evaluation of options, but typically show none of this. The options presented are typically what the council wants to do and the status quo, predetermined as inadequate. Ask for the analysis. Research what good looks like. I recommend the six elements of decision quality. If you are refused or get an inadequate response (including ‘commerciality’ or lack of officer time), start to worry a lot.

If your Council fails all three of these tests, my recommendation is that if you are in opposition, start voting against the administration; if you are in power, start losing sleep.

Harry Fone: £255 million a year is spent on councillor allowances. That is where the economy drive should begin.

30 Dec

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance is well-known for scrutinising the pay of council bosses but our latest research has focused attention on allowances for elected representatives. In 2018-19 alone, the cost of councillors was at least £255 million. As witnessed across numerous local authorities, members vote through an increase in their allowances whilst often claiming they don’t have enough money for statutory services.

There was little surprise when an opposition councillor at West Sussex County Council (WSCC) met with fierce resistance after suggesting that cabinet members have their special responsibility allowances (SRAs) cut by 25 per cent. SRAs are typically paid to chairs of committees, cabinet members, and opposition leaders in addition to a basic allowance.

At the heart of the dispute were plans to cut the SRAs of the opposition leaders whilst cabinet members and committee chairs saw no decrease. It’s always welcome when councils make savings but some will question why the cuts fell almost solely on the opposition.

This spurred one opposition leader to propose an amendment calling for a cut in all SRAs. Even if this was an act of retribution, savings of around £90,000 a year would no doubt be well received by ratepayers. Councillors should be compensated for their efforts but the role should not be treated as a full-time job with a decent salary. Civic duty should be put above all else.

Given WSCC’s recent poor performance – notably “systemic and prolonged” failures in children’s services and the £265,000 golden goodbye to controversial former chief executive Nathan Elvery – you would think councillors would want to do everything possible to make amends with constituents.

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Across the border in East Sussex, Brighton and Hove City Council is forecasting a budget shortfall of around £15 million next year. With residents facing a rate rise of five per cent, it has to be asked if better decision-making might have mitigated such a large increase.

The ongoing saga that is the i360 observation tower is failing to deliver on its promises. Funded by £36.2 million of council loans (via the Public Works Loan Board) to a private management company, the 530 feet “doughnut on a stick” has never really got off the ground. Even before the pandemic, it was plagued with low passenger numbers and frequent breakdowns.

Adding insult to injury, loan repayments have regularly been deferred due to financial difficulties. To date, only £5.9 million has been repaid, with £33 million now outstanding.

One of the key players behind the project, former leader of Brighton council, Jason Kitcat, claimed back in 2014:

 “The project will provide a new source of income to help shore up vital frontline services.”

It seems there’s a long way to go before the council will see the estimated “£1 million a year” profit from its investment.

While residents are still shouldering the burden of this white elephant, Kitcat, a self-described “recovering politician” has fared rather better financially. After being asked to stand down as council leader by his own party, he became the Executive Director of Corporate Development at Essex County Council. A role that remunerated him to the tune of £190,000 in 2018-19 and gifted him a payout of nearly £164,000 when he left shortly after.

Let’s hope for a change in the i360’s fortunes so that local ratepayers see a ‘recovery’ in the council’s balance sheet.

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Following a recent government review, fears are mounting that Nottingham City Council (NCC) could fall foul of bankruptcy. As residents of Croydon and Northamptonshire know all too well, a Section 114 notice is far from desirable.

The similarities between Croydon and Nottingham are disconcerting. Both authorities engaged in ambitious commercial investments with well paid council employees lacking the necessary financial expertise, as borrowing exceeded £1 billion – Nottingham has the third highest debt to net budget of all the core cities.

Over recent years, NCC has seen its reserves dwindle mostly due to the collapse of its ill-judged energy company. Formed in 2015, Robin Hood Energy (RHE) tried and failed to compete in the highly competitive and regulated energy sector. Financed with £43 million of public money, RHE failed to make a profit in every single year of operation. Total losses are estimated at £38 million.

The government’s report is particularly scathing of RHE’s directors who are described as “unable to critically appraise the trading position and a forecast profit [£202,000] outturned as a significant loss [£1.6 million]”. Another damning report by auditors Grant Thornton went further saying there was “institutional blindness within the Council.”

Despite warnings from NCC’s Section 151 officer about RHE’s worsening finances, the authority failed to take action. The report doesn’t specifically blame then chief executive, Ian Curryer, for failing to act but does state, “The Council does not appear to have a mechanism for setting targets and goals for its Chief Executive and holding the postholder to account for it.” Local residents may be irked to learn that between 2012 and 2020 Mr Curryer received total taxpayer-funded remuneration of over £1.3 million.

As Robert Jenrick, the Local Government Secretary, put it:

“Taxpayers and residents have been let down by years of disgraceful mismanagement and inept ventures”.

A series of recommendations have been put in place to turn the ship around but councils all across the country must learn from Nottingham’s mistakes.