Monday, 14 November 2016

Is Croydon Council's Proposed Devolution To Local Communities Mere Tokenism?

Tonight Croydon Council's Cabinet is considering an officers' report proposing three pilots involving community engagement to devolve decision making to local communities. 

While devolving decision making out of the Town Hall is crucial and something I have supported for over 40 years, the paper has a number of drawbacks.

I have therefore sent my comments on the paper to all Councillors and asked them to have Scrutiny Committee call it in for public examination and debate.

This is what I have written.

1.      The report Devolution to local communities is a very welcome initiative towards residents and their organisations being more involved in decision making that affects their areas.

2.      Because it has several  major drawbacks it is to be hoped that it will be called in by the Scrutiny Committee and that the Committee will  invite people to submit their views in writing or orally at a special meeting just devoted to this paper. The delay involved is not crucial and could result in an improved and strengthened approach.

3.      Localism Act 2011. The inclusion of the paragraph ‘The Localism Act … democratic’ is misleading and should be deleted. The Act is not a serious contribution to decentralisation. It is almost Orwellian. The Neighbourhood Planning provision is a costly exercise for local community organisations. The Neighbourhood Forum provision is meaningless unless local authorities agree to discuss establishing them with local organisations. Reforms to the planning system have taken decision making away from Councils and therefore reduced the ability of local communities to influence the decisions. These include the rules relating to LDCs, GPDOs, the right of developers to turn office buildings to residential without planning permission, and the lack of the right of appeal by community groups to planning decisions they disagree with which the Government opposes.

4.      It is recommended that all Councillors read the discussion on the Act in:
·       the National Coalition for Independent Act and Trades Union Congress publication Localism: threat or opportunity? Perspectives on the Localism Act for union and community organisers and activists
·       The report Two years on, what has the Localism Act achieved? of the views of Jules Pipe, the Mayor of Hackney and Chair of London Councils in 1913.

5.      Top-Down. The report is the views of senior officers, who traditionally have a top-down perspective, and who do not like criticism of their proposals. There are no views incorporated as to the views of those who have been involved in e.g. Thornton Heath as to the success or otherwise of the engagement initiatives there, and what lessons can be learnt to strengthen the next steps there and inform the approach in the pilot areas.

6.      Key Decision. The report says that it is not a  key decision. This is debateable. By not having a pre-Scrutiny review the views of those in the community involved in different forms of engagement cannot be taken into account to assess whether the proposed approach is acceptable with or without changes. For example, an important set of experiences will have been submitted into the parks consultation. These need to be examined and reflected upon before final decisions on the approach are approved.

7.      The Local Plan. The consultation on the  Local Plan resulted in the submission of a considerable number of views from residents and other locally based organisations on how they wanted their areas protected in the future. They sought to influence decision making on their local areas. Many of their suggestions were rejected by the officers on suspect grounds which has only fuelled hostility to the Council, increasing the belief that it is not interested in taking seriously local views.

8.      Public Health Issues. The report does not sufficiently take into account the issues raised in the Public Health Report 2016 in relation to the incidence of social isolation and loneliness, what they are in each of pilot area and what the implications are for engagement in those areas. A major flaw in the Public Health Report is that while it recognises that ethnicity is a contributing factor, there is no data provided. 

9.      Digital Divide. It does not acknowledge the digital divide and what I will call the ‘digital deficit’ (that is the number of people who while digitally connected are not in linked into the digital messages from the Council and others). There is another aspect of the divide which is rarely talked about: the problems those for whom English is a second language have in reading information in English.

10.    Print Communication. It does not acknowledge the need to find ways of engaging with people through traditionally printed means. The growing reliance on digital communication is reducing the ability of people to know about how and what to engage in. One way may be to ensure that the annual Ward budgets have a requirement to fund regular information leaflets into residents letter boxes. The English reading problems of those for whom it is a second language also apply here.

11.    Disillusionment and cynicism.  It does not acknowledge  that a challenge that will be faced in each priority area is the attitude of residents who are disillusioned and cynical about the way they have seen what they believe has been the riding rough shod over the collectively expressed wishes of local residents in the past. Why should they believe that the Council will change and that was is being proposed is not just tokenism? Two examples in a non-pilot area are:
·       the imposition of the BMX Track in Norbury Park against large scale local opposition which has damaged the potential for working on other improvements to the Park between residents and the Council.
·       the decision to approve the planning application for 18 Pollards Hill West.
There are many other examples across the Borough.

12.    Lack of Monitoring and Decision Making Structure.  There is no discussion about having a mechanism for local residents and their organisations to be involved with Ward Councillors in monitoring and holding officers to account in the way in which projects are implemented in the pilot areas. Whether these are called Neighbourhood, Ward or Area Committees, Forums or Advisory bodies, does not matter. Despite having a lot of detail about Neighbourhood Forums on its website ( the Council does not seem to have taken any steps to ensure that any have been established. The absence of such bodies ensures that the detailed decisions will be taken by officers using the top-down approach (see above) rejecting those ideas they do not personally agree with. It will reinforce the existing cynicism that most consultations and engagement are not genuine exercises – just tick-box tokenism.

13.    Resolving Differences in Neighbourhoods. There are many different perspectives in every neighbourhood. Older owner occupiers may welcome the rise in house prices in the hope they can sell, buy cheaper elsewhere, and have money towards their old age. Their neighbours may be concerned that they are selling to buy to let landlords or developers who want to convert the houses, with the increased number of people and competition for parking and increase in noise that results.

14.    Although Croydon has the veneer of being a multi-cultural area there are deep resentments about newcomers on nationality and religious grounds. There are deep divisions between religions and within them about sexual orientation. The increase in hate crime in the Borough shows how challenging the process of acceptance of change and interacting positively is. Such tensions need to be mediated, and one method is through a formal structure supported by other forms of community engagement.

15.    Volunteering. Meaningful engagement involves the twin encouragement to people be citizen activists and/or volunteers. The two roles are very different, but complement each other. It has to be recognised that most residents’ lives, especially in areas experience socio-economic stress have least time, energy and money to be able to be either. Volunteers need organisation and managerial support especially if they are ‘working’ in public service venues.

16.    Limit of Council Influence. There is a lack of recognition that most changes in a local area are driven by forces completely outside the control of residents and the Council. The particular drivers in recent years and look likely to continue are:
  • ·       Developers wanting to carry out schemes which are not wanted by residents.
  • ·       Developers proposing schemes which do not fit with Council policies, e.g. bedroom sizes, safeguarding family sized houses, but which the Planners and the Planning Committee feel they cannot oppose because of the pressures from Government and the Mayor of London to deliver a target of new homes regardless  of whether they meet Borough policies and needs.
  • ·       The loss of employment sites, making it more difficult to generate job creation, resulting in more people having to go out of Borough to work.
  • ·       The rise in house prices (at least 10% in the last year) as people in Inner London look to move to Croydon because it is still marginally cheaper.
  • ·       The activities of buy-to-let landlords increasing the occupancy of previously owner-occupied houses thereby creating more competition for parking, more noise, litter and fly-tipping problems.
  • ·       The increasing rent levels in the private sector which make renting more expensive and also drive up the level of rents in ‘affordable’ housing because of the 80% formula link.
  • ·       Commercial property landlords putting up shop rents and driving existing businesses out.
  • ·       National planning rules that have prevented the Council from stopping the spread of betting shops and the conversion of empty office blocks to residential, and from stopping unwanted schemes which are allowed under the General Planning Development Order.
  • ·       The inadequacy of bus services in some areas, and the incompetence of the train operators to run a reliable service.
  • ·       Anti-social behaviour such as fly-tipping,
  • ·       Anti-social behaviour such as speeding cars in back streets, which cannot be solved by 20mph zones because of the lack of enforcement, cyclists riding through red lights and without lights at night, creating risks to pedestrians and to themselves from motorists.
  • ·       The sale everywhere of alcohol leading to an increase in drinking on the street, litter and alcoholism. 

17.    Council Actions. None of this is helped by:
  • ·       the Government funding cuts to what the Council can do
  • ·       the depletion in the number of planning staff when the number of applications has been increasing
  • ·       the depletion in the number of enforcement officers meaning that issues like the illegal smoking inside the premises of shisha cafes (e.g. the Havanas in Norbury’s London Rd) remain unresolved.
  • The last point feeds into the cynicism about the Council’s ability to act to protect local communities.