Labour faces a serious problem on 22 May in the Croydon Council elections. It appears that both disillusioned Tory and Labour Croydon voters may be voting for UKIP in the Euro and the Council elections. A key reason appears to be lack of faith in any politicians.
I can understand why people are thinking of voting UKIP in the Euro election - to send a message to the three main parties that there is a range of concerns about the way the EU operates. However, Croydon Council’s elections are entirely different. Councillors make real decisions that affect the lives of thousands of residents through the way services are delivered and the way the Borough is developed for the future. They need experience and a common agenda. UKIP offers neither.
So on what basis should voters make their minds up? If they:
· believe in fairness and social justice
· believe in standing up to the power of the developers
· want a Council that will use its limited powers to try and alleviate some of the
worst effects of the decisions it has inherited within the requirements of Central Government to continue to make cuts
then there is only one choice.
And that choice is Labour.
Tory Council Tax Scaremongering
The biggest threat to Labour is the Tories Council tax scare-mongering. The latter reached an all time low with their wrap around four page advertisement in the Croydon Guardian edition of 7 May. Its headline: ‘Labour Spending Plans = 27% Council Tax rise’ looked like a Guardian story until you noticed that in tiny print it said ‘Advertisement’. The Council Tax scaremongering is of course a gross distortion of the truth as Council Tax rises are capped. For this financial year it was 2%. In any case Labour has promised zero Council Tax increases until at least 2016. As have the Tories. Even if the cap remains at 2% per annum for 2016/18, the maximum increase could only be just over 4% (accumulative).
The advertisement was cleverly timed coming out just before people started completing their postal votes. Labour was warned in the Council meetings earlier in the year that the Tories would be scaremongering. Coupled with the Council Tax rebate, paying us back what they had taken with their increase last year, the Tories hope they are on to a winner with electors.
Labour has rightly taken its position given that the further reductions imposed by the Government on Council Tax relief will be hitting those on low income the hardest. The New Policy Institute has shown that due to reduced relief from 1 April around 650,000 families in England and Wales face an effective rise in Council Tax of around £60 a year. In contrast, the average Council Tax payer will see an increase of £12 this year, just a fifth of that amount.
The issues in this election are far more serious than how much Council Tax may or may not go up in the future. There will be continuing cuts whichever Party in the power. The questions then become:
· how are such cuts to be made?
· to what extent the ruling Party will try to protect those in the poorer
· how to use the Council’s limited powers and influence to try and modify many
of the developments that are taking place being driven by the property
Community Benefits of Property Development
Pressures from developers to reduce what wider community benefits they have to pay for will continue. The issue is which Party will be most effective in standing up to them. It cannot be the Tories whose Leader has said the Council will pay for the new road for the Cane Hill Hospital development instead of the developer, sending a signal to all other developers that Croydon Council under the Tories will not expect them to deliver extra community benefits. A Labour controlled Council is also more likely to refuse to use CPO powers to help developers than the Tories who have adopted powers to help Westfield/Hammersons.
Redevelopment of Council buildings and sites
will continue. The issue is whether through the CCURV partnership with John Laing which Party will protect open space and ensure redevelop for social purposes. It certainly will not be the Tories who have approved building on Queens Gardens.
The Beddington Lane Incinerator
This scheme is going ahead (unless delayed by judicial review judgement). Croydon Council is a member of the South London Waste Partnership Joint Committee. The Tories originally opposed the plan and then voted in support. Labour has opposed and can use its representation to argue for very tight monitoring of traffic, emissions and consider whether to leave the Partnership and find other solutions to disposing of Croydon’s waste.
Fairfield Halls Trustees
are dominated with those involved in the property industries. The Tories wanted to have more control over the Board, but were prevented from doing so. A Labour controlled Council can work to try and ensure that people involved in the arts and the community are added to the Board.
The Library Service
The management has been contracted out, first to JLIS which then sold out to Carillion. The Tories saw no objection to this. A Labour controlled Council is more likely to exercise tough monitoring over the delivery of the contract. And may be able to find a way to end it.
If we want the following Labour is more likely to deliver:
· Establishment of ward, area and neighbourhood committees of Councillors and
residents and business representatives to encourage more participation in the
decision making process
· Altering the current welfare reform strategy of the Council away from the
emphasis on changing behaviour and dicktat control to mitigating the effects of
benefit cuts and increasing opportunities to solve the resultant problems.
· A halt on moving homeless families outside the Borough to areas where their
family and friends networks, schooling and work would be severed.
· A tougher regime against private sector landlords who have poor management
and repair record.
· A larger new building and house purchase programme.
· A promise not to sell off any of the Council's cultural assets and donated
· A condition on future tendering that all bidders must wave commercial
confidentiality so all information is publicly available.
· The establishment of a partnership with organisations on cultural and heritage
strategy, and re-vitalisation of the Clocktower as a cultural and learning centre.
· An aggressive approach to identifying and taking action to bring empty housing
back into use.
· Encouragement of the formation of Friends of Parks and Open Spaces.
· Re-formulation of the Scrutiny process to ensure that proper enquiries are
undertaken with organisations and individuals invited to submit their analyses
· Return to Warehouse Theatre the Section 106 monies the Council steered
towards itself in agreement with the developer as part of the strategy to close
· Require developers to provide a higher proportion of affordable social housing.
· Develop an alternative diverse economic strategy that is not dependent on
property and retail developers.
· Oppose more mega-storey buildings.
· Stop using its powers to assist the land assembly for academy and free schools
and other developers.
· Stop the eviction of tenants in arrears caused by the adverse effects of the
bedroom tax and stop housing homeless families outside London or parts of
London far from school, work and family networks.
Let’s be clear the Tories will not do any of this.
Is Labour Capable of Delivering?
I have no illusions that a controlling Labour Group from 23 May will find it easy. It will not be able to as the Government further tightens the financial screw. But it can do many positive things as listed above.
Day One Action
It has been suggested to me that Croydon Labour does not have the management skills to sort out the Council; or to establish a robust vision for Croydon i.e. they do not know how or what they are going to do in power. The job to be done is horrendous. As someone who has been critical of the strategy and tactics used by Labour in opposition, I can understood this pessimism. But the adoption of a more open and inclusive approach to policy and decision making and scrutiny and monitoring could ensure that expertise from within the community can be encouraged to assist. But the first urgent task is to send the Chief Officers a clear signal that it is not business as usual, but a change with
May 23 should see a meeting at which the Chief Officers are told them that they are expected:
· The support the implementation of the new set of aims and priorities and the
· to operate with more openness
· to ensure more effective delivery, monitoring of contracts
· to protect Croydon residents vulnerable through poverty, poor housing, health
and other social and economic inequalities.
They should also be old to bring the first Cabinet meeting:
· a list of all decisions Labour opposed in opposition with a view to their possible
rescindment and replacement by decisions taking a different path. e.g.
permission as CCURV partner to building on Queen’s Gardens;
· the details of the budget changes Labour outlined in its amendment to the Tory
budget for 2014-15 with a view to implementing them
· a timetable for the first Committee cycle consideration of all policy and
implementation changes required
· a report on all contracts with property companies and consultants with a view to
reviewing how to end the tight network of overlapping interests between the
Council and property developers
· a list of all Council appointments to outside bodies to choose new
representatives and to set out a new brief for those representatives
· a review of Councillor allowances with a view to a significant reduction
Another major reason for voting Labour in the Council elections is that it will send a message to the ConDem coalition Government that the public do not support the whole package of austerity measures. The more Labour Councils there are the more likely there is that the weight of local authorities can be used to press the case for an easing up of austerity measures against local authorities ability to provide the services that their residents need.
But can Labour win control?
All the talk is that the Council elections will be won or lost in three wards where support for both main parties is close, and only a small number of votes could change which party wins those ward seats. In marginal wards the election can be won or lost in the last couple of hours before the polling stations close. So encouraging potential voters to go to the polls, and if need be to get them there by car right up to one minute before closing time is crucial. The old sophiscated What also seems to have gone out of the window is the flexibility that wards organisers and candidates used to have to produce their own ward specific leaflets, to respond to developments in the local area in the local election campaign. So if Labour fails to take key votes by up to 50 votes it will be due to failure of organisation. Such failure could consign the Borough to another four years of Tory control, with increasing cuts to services for the less-well off, more money into the hands of private contractors, fewer and less efficient services, failure to stand up to developers, and the ever growing distorted, non-diverse and retail local economy driven by property developers.