Author Mike Swadling
Mayoral and council elections are fast approaching in our borough. Of course, it’s easy to heckle from the cheap seats if you’re not running, but if I may ask your indulgence, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I think our first elected Mayor should be focusing on in office.
- Find out how bad the problems really are
Croydon has twice issued a Section 114 notice, and is either about to, or came close perilously close to issuing a third one due to a misalignment of capital and revenue funds. The new Mayor should go in and ask each department to ask them to rapidly ‘bring out your dead’, the officers need to let the new Mayor know every problem and add them to a risk or issue register, with an assigned cost to resolve. The Mayor needs to be clear with the local officers that now is the time to come clean without prejudice, but anything they try to hide will be used against them in the future. The mayors team can only fix the problems of Croydon Council once they truly know how bad they are.
- Change the culture
Croydon council appears to have a frankly toxic culture towards the people of Croydon, quite a few of the staff, and some of the councillors. The council recently voted to stop using their auditors Grant Thornton in what appears to be a response to the auditors continually finding problems in the running of the borough. Why are the council continually arguing with their auditors? Yes, auditors can be a royal pain, but that’s their job. The Mayor should invite the auditors in to sit with department heads and detail the problems that didn’t make it to the ‘Reports in the Public interest’. It’s far from just the Audits, it’s the planning department that doesn’t care to listen to residents, it’s the phones that go unanswered. When the council was making national headlines for the problems at the Regina Road flats in South Norwood, it was clear the council lacked basic crisis management skills, no war room, no briefing for the Council Leader Hamida Ali, no plan of action to make some rapid improvements or even speak to residents. The council needs to stop operating as if in a bunker where everyone else is the enemy and start acting as a professional partner and service provider.
- Fix planning
The councils’ involvement in planning is a mixture of policy setting and sitting in judgment on individual planning cases. The legal details that need to be met mean planning in the borough is far from a quick problem to solve. Firstly, the local plan needs to be updated and approved, it appears all Mayoral candidates are committed to holding the submission of the plan over whilst they review and focusing on a new plan that doesn’t attempt to exceed the required numbers from the GLA would be a great start. As would a greater focus on houses rather than flats, more in setting with most of the borough. Planning is a legal quagmire, and any new Mayor is likely to disappoint more people (at least initially) than they please, but with some local sensitivity to planning and a much less aggressive attitude from councillors and council officers, things can improve.
- Work across the borough
One of the main selling points from the DEMOC (democratically elected mayor of Croydon) campaign was that a Mayor would need to secure votes from across the borough and would therefore govern for both Purley and Thornton Health, not being able to win re-election without a decent support from both. Croydon is 2 to 3 different types of area, and many small towns brought together in one borough. One size doesn’t fit all, and a town hall that respects that diversity will make for a much happier and more successful borough. A new Mayor would do well to focus planning as locally as possible, target services at a local level, work with residents’ associations and dare I say it councillors in each local area for the success of the borough. To suggest that a likely Labour or Conservative Mayor works with councillors from the other party may be a heresy to many, but that is part of the fundamental problem with Croydon’s politics. I can understand why in the swing wards in Addiscombe this might prove impossible, but in safe wards like Sanderstead and South Norwood, there is no reason why collecting the bins needs to be a partisan issue, and a Mayor should try to bring together all elected officials to work to the betterment of each area.
- Children’s Services is spiralling out of control again
Croydon’s Children’s Services department has been in and out of Special Measures over the past few years. Children’s Services looks after the most vulnerable people in our society, there is a moral as well as legal imperative that of all the councils’ services, this is the one that we make a Rolls Royce solution. A new Mayor should move the best and the brightest into this department to make improvements. Any blocker to increasing capacity needs to be removed, and we need social services working with key community services, forming hubs around local schools and medical practices. No easy answers on how to do this, and a constrained financial environment won’t help, but keeping the Children’s Services on track should be an early focus of a new Mayor.
- Do something with the town centre
I fundamentally believe the best people to decide how to run a shop are shopkeepers, the best to decide how to run a pub are landlords, and the best to run a restaurant are restaurateurs. In all these cases the worst people to decide how to run the business are politicians, with local government officers a close second. If you needed any proof of this look no further than Croydon town centre. Brilliant planning schemes have led to the collapse of our main shopping centre. I think a Mayor would be best to leave the next steps for the town centre to the experts, the landlords, retailers and business groups that own and operate the towns main shopping areas. That’s not to say there aren’t any areas the council can help with. People need to feel safe in the town centre and the council can co-ordinate with services like the police to make sure Croydon is a safe place to shop. People need to be able to get to the town centre, buses in Croydon seem to be routed ever further from the shopping areas, and car parking has become ever more expensive. We do have new cycle lanes, but who seriously believes we will ever see large numbers cycle to go shopping or for a night out? Get the basic infrastructure right and leave the enterprise to the entrepreneurs.
- Stop coming up with bright ideas
Westfield, buying hotels and shopping centres, new building companies, massive redevelopments of the Fairfield Halls, Boxpark, £10,000 for someone to defecate on stage, all bright ideas brought to you by Croydon Council in recent years, all ultimately helping lead to the borough’s de facto bankruptcy. With the financial problems the council faces, the planning problems, the risks in Children’s services, and many more issues on the new Mayors plate, they need to stop coming up with new bright ideas and focus on these priorities. This might not suite everyone, many at the council might want to undertake new and exciting work, well they can leave, that will help drive the cultural change the council so desperately needs.
The Mayor needs to ensure that the council can delivery its basic services well on the limited budget available. They will be negotiating with central government for grants, investments, and probably more bailout funds, and they will need to show they are delivering the service to the people of Croydon. The new Mayor will have few places to hide, the buck will stop with them. As discussed, the councils’ offices need to undergo cultural change to start responding to the people of Croydon and focus on delivery of basic services on budget rather than generating big ideas. One way to keep a large organisation like Croydon Council on track is to implement Key Performance Indicators or KPIs at each level to ensure departments are delivering on the tasks asked for. KPIs aren’t a panacea, and it can lead to misaligned priorities, but all these priorities, misaligned or not will be on delivering key services not on big new bold spending plans.
Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org what you think of these priorities. If you have some of your own, why not write them up for us to publish?