Friday, 30 June 2017

Croydon Labour needs to start listening if it wants to retain control of the Council next May

On Saturday 24 June the Croydon Assembly met to discuss the new political situation following the result of the General Election and the surge in support for the national Labour Party. 

Praise was given to the drafting of the Manifesto by Croydon's Andrew Fisher who works in Jeremy Corbyn and John Macdonald's team. Patsy Cumming, another Croydon Labour member, who had been working in the team during the Election, stressed that the Manifesto is a work in progress and that ideas for improvement should continue to be sent in. It was clear that there was a need to continue to campaign against the Conservative Government and its austerity cuts and other damaging policies, and to promote the Assembly's own Plan for Croydon.

I discussed the problem of the way in which Croydon Labour's administration is a growing problem. This is what I said at the Assembly. 

Gavin Barwell and the Whitgift development

Labour’s snatching of Croydon Central from Gavin Barwell, the Minister for Housing and London, was a triumph.

One of his many contributions to Croydon was the behind the scenes negotiations that persuaded Hammerson and Westfield to become partners for the redevelopment of the Whitgift Shopping Centre, that obscene £1bn plus redevelopment scheme.

These developers are now proposing five tower blocks at the West Croydon end of Wellesley Rd. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is a reminder of the dangers of tower block developments. It is not just in Council and housing association since among the fires elsewhere was one of those luxury ones in Dubai.

The Grenfell disaster

The Grenfell disaster has pushed the whole issue of social and affordable housing centre stage. The fact that 67 luxury flats have had to be purchased highlights the way in which new housing in London is not meeting the real needs of Londoners. Such flats should be requisitioned.

Croydon Council’s reaction has been excellent starting a number of actions to ensure safety for residents in its tower blocks including the provision of sprinklers and wanting an investigation of the office blocks what were turned into homes without planning permission under the Tories relaxation of planning rules.

The importance of listening to residents

A key lesson from the Grenfell disaster is the importance that politicians, local authorities, Government and officials must listen to residents.

Unfortunately led by Planning Chair Paul Scott Croydon’s Labour administration is obsessed with meeting the housing target required by the Government and the London Plan regardless of whether it will meeting housing need, whether it will provide the right mix of dwellings, whether will maximise affordable housing, and whether it will damage the other aspects of the Plan, such as environment, green spaces, heritage, air pollution and flooding.

The Developer Driver

It has been putting too much faith in the developers who have parasitically seen Croydon as a profitable milk-cow. It is they that have been driving the redevelopment of the Town Centre with its ripple effect on increasing house prices and private rents elsewhere in the Borough.

Too much trust is being placed in developers elsewhere as well. Two days ago the developer at Battersea Power Station announced it would halve the amount of affordable housing there. Let us not forget that the developer and building industries have been pressing for less planning and other regulations.

Brick by Brick

The Council has itself become a developer through its Brick by Brick company. It is alienating residents on Council estates by putting in planning permissions for new blocks on green spaces.

All across the Borough the Council has alienated growing numbers of residents over its planning decisions. The irony is that it plans to erode the Green Belt while at the same time the national Labour Party manifesto promises to protect it. 

Let us not forget that the Green Belt began under Herbert Morrison when the he was Labour Leader of the London County Council in the 1930s and then backed by Clem Attlee’s Government in Town and Country Planning legislation. That same Government introduced National Parks. 50 years ago  Harold Wilson’s introduced Conservation Areas.

Planning and voting

In an article in Croydon Citizen in the lead up to the General Election I argued that those angry with Croydon Council over planning should look at the wider picture when deciding how to vote. They needed to remember that the Tories were planning to loosen planning controls further and if necessary would overrule approved Local Plans.

During the Election period the Croydon Local Plan Public Hearings in front of an independent Planning Inspector took place. I spoke at 18 of the 19 sessions on behalf of the Croydon TUC and Assembly working group on local housing and economy and its Environment Forum, and the Norbury Residents Associations Joint Planning Committee. I have submitted to the Inspector a request that he rejects the Plan because it is unsound, poorly evidenced, unsustainable and undeliverable. 

I have also written to all Councillors urging  them to meet together to see what changes they can agree to offer the Inspector, rather than leave it to Officers. Whichever Party wins the local elections in May will have to work to the planning framework of the Local Plan.

Electoral blindness

Paul Scott, the Planning Chair has rejected this idea. He argues that the General Election result shows that people support what the Council is doing. What arrogance and blindness. The way people vote is different in local elections to the way they vote at national elections. May’s Council elections in will be won or lost for Labour in up to six wards depending on the final ward boundary changes introduced by the Boundaries Commission. There is no certainty that Labour will win.

The Executive Leader and Cabinet system

At the root of this arrogance and blindness is the governance model: the executive Leader and Cabinet system. This leads to top down decision making, tokenistic consultation ignoring people’s concerns, and the exclusion of most Councillors from decision making. Croydon TUC has long argued that this system needs to be abandoned and it is a demand in the Assembly manifesto.

That debate needs to be taken into the Labour Party to try and get a commitment to changing the system into its manifesto. It also requires a change in the planning. The outcome is awaited of a series of formal complaints against the Chair about his pressure on a Labour Councillor not to vote against an application.

Campaigns are needed:

(1)    against new developer tower blocks, improvements in safety for existing social tenants, and for tougher action against private landlords;

(2)    to urge the Labour Party to abandon the Executive Leader Cabinet model of governance.

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