Minutes of meeting: Directly Elected Mayoral system for Croydon with guest speaker MP Steve Reed

Minutes of meeting held on Thursday 2nd September, 7-8.30pm at St. Paul’s Church, with guest speaker Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North.

1.Welcome, H&S, apologies

Gill from St Paul’s gave the Fire & Safety briefing.

Apologies were received from: Averil Coutinho, Jackie Cross, Fr. Sean, Suzanne Maher, Alison Butler, Caroline Ridley and Tilly Pollard.

Andrea Perry welcomed everyone to the meeting, and thanked our guest, Steve Reed for joining us to discuss the question of having an elected mayor for Croydon.  She introduced herself as the new Chair of THCAT taking her first full meeting.

2.THCAT mission statement with updates on Ambassador roles. Short reports on: graffiti, fly tipping and social media.

Andrea explained that since the AGM there had been some changes at THCAT.

The website and logo were being updated by Tilly and we would soon have new branding.  Some members of the Committee had now been designated as Ambassadors to focus efforts on longstanding issues such as Flytipping and Graffiti.

Graffiti: Ambassador Mohammed Mir who has been out trying to clean graffiti with the help of Graham Mitchell on the Bensham Manor Road bridge.

Andrea outlined that the council’s financial position resulted in their Graffiti removal team being withdrawn with no consultation. A petition received very little coverage.  Since then, Thornton Heath has been tagged everywhere which impacts the perception of the area, leading to more crime etc.  A Google photos album has been set up by THCAT for photos of Graffiti in our area to be logged.

The Police say repeat taggers may be prosecuted.  We are also mobilising people to get rid of some of the graffiti with pressure washing, especially on our murals and are planning a workshop on creating different images on shop shutters.

Flytipping: Ambassadors Barbara Benjamin and Gaëtane Jones, assisted by Paul Voden.  They are trying to get our elected members and the Council to develop a meaningful strategy to deal with flytipping and to use the enforcement powers they have to stop it.  They have already started to work on some particular streets.

Community Outreach & Green and Sustainable Living: Ambassadors Linda Watson & Agnieszka Dyczkowska Working on the greening of Thornton Heath, which the Council is not doing.  Volunteers will be needed to help maintain green spaces such as the Ambassador House forecourt, in front of the Job Centre etc.  They are aiming to install water butts and encourage others to do this.  They are making connections with other local groups with similar interests.

3.What is the campaign for a Democratically Elected Mayor of Croydon (DEMOC) and how will it change the present system

Andrea explained that we had speakers in favour of a democratically elected mayor at our last meeting, details of which could be found in the minutes. The referendum will take place on 7th October 2021 and was initiated by groups in S. Croydon who collected 17,000 signatures on a petition which was enough to trigger the referendum.

The current cabinet model at the Council has been in place since 2001.  There are 25 directly elected mayors in England, 4 of which are in London.  The cabinet can be made up of different political parties.

In a mayoral election voters have 2 choices of candidate.  If any candidate gets 50% of the 1st choice vote, he/she is elected.  If not, the 2nd choice votes are counted for the top 2 candidates to give a result.

4.Presentation by Steve Reed putting the reasons against the Directly Elected Mayoral system for Croydon

Steve thanked us for inviting him to what is his first meeting in Thornton Heath in 18 months because of the pandemic.  He has been MP for Croydon North since December 2012 before which he was leader of Lambeth Council.  He has a background in local government and is Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

On the issue of Graffiti, he said that in Lambeth shopkeepers are given 48 hours to clean off graffiti.  If they do not do it, the Council do it and bill them, which costs them more than doing it themselves.  In Brixton, they paint pictures of babies on shop shutters as people seem less likely to put graffiti over babies.

Turning to the mayoral referendum, he said it is only one month away but hardly anyone knows it is happening.  The turnout will be very low and this could produce a system people do not want.

He stated that he has nothing against the DEM model in principle.  It is good in Lewisham and outstanding in some places but it depends on the quality of leadership and we need to consider if it is appropriate in particular circumstances.

The referendum is not about what the Council does but about how we elect them.  He feels it is not appropriate in Croydon in the current circumstances because:

  1. Cost. Croydon has had a 76% cut in government funding since 2010 despite the fact that we have increased poverty eg among the old and asylum seekers etc.  The average Council nationally had a 40% cut in this time.  The Council admits it has made mistakes but fundamentally the 76% cut is responsible.  12 Councils have had to apply to the government for a Capitalisation Direction (effectively declaring themselves bankrupt) because the cuts to their budgets had been too severe to allow them to provide the services required.  Should we then pay for an additional politician on top of the 70 Councillors we already have?  Some current mayors receive £85,000pa and their staff cost a further £500,000pa or 2 million over a 4-year term.  The total cost for Croydon could be £2.75 million but we cannot afford to continue to run activities for the over 50’s in this hall (St Paul’s Church).  What would people rather spend the money on?
  1. You cannot get rid of a bad Mayor. Currently it is possible to get rid of a bad Council – the Councillors can vote the leader out. A Mayor has a fixed 4-year term and can only be got rid of if sent to prison but can stay in post if arrested.
  1. Reduction Diversity and over-centralisation of power. Croydon is one of the most diverse places in Europe and in collective leadership you can have diversity.  The Cabinet is the most diverse in the country.  In the mayoral model diversity is reduced as the cabinet has no power.  It all lies with the mayor.  Power is already overcentralised in Croydon both now and before with the Conservatives and a mayor centralises it more.  We should seek open power, information and data.

The referendum is happening because of a petition by the Conservative party in South Croydon.  This is the same party requiring voter ID to suppress voter turnout and restrict democracy.  They believe they have a better chance of gaining power through a mayor than through the Council.  Less people vote in a less affluent society and there are also language problems.  There is a higher turnout in Tory areas so you could have more Labour members on the Council but a Tory mayor in charge.

What Should the Council do Differently?

We need change.  Instead of centralisation, local government should be opened up.  Lambeth has a co-operative model, doing things with people not to people.  In 2003 Lambeth Children’s Services was in the bottom 3%.  6 years later it was the best in the country – the only Children’s Services department with outstanding from OFSTED in all categories.  Power and decision making was opened up to those on the receiving end of services and the workers in the sector.  They have better insight than those sitting in the Town Hall.  Some possible ways to open up could be:

  1. A Community Trust for Grangewood Park like the one at Crystal Palace which is delivering improvement.
  2. Tenant led social housing with managers accountable to the tenants who are able to get rid of them.
  3. Community Regeneration Boards for each area.
  4. Community energy generation organisation, owned and funded by the Community.  It is a win/win situation providing green energy and higher interest to investors than the bank.

None of these projects needs a mayor and they will not happen with the current system unless there is change.

5.Questions on DEMOC

Andrea asked how we get change when the Council does not listen to anything which is presented to it?

Graham Mitchell said the mayoral vote may become a protest vote as the problems are not entirely the fault of the cuts.  The public cannot get rid of the leader and on 20th September, 2 months before the section 114, the Labour Councillors voted for the leader.  They don’t listen and they don’t stand up for those who vote for them.

Steve Reed replied that the publication of the report led to the leader going.  The Liverpool mayor could not be got rid of even thought he had been arrested.  The mayor can serve a full term unless put in prison.  An enquiry takes longer than the length of the mayoral term so they cannot be got rid of.

Mohammed Mir commented that the majority of Councillors are not responding to the residents. They want power for themselves, not to listen.

Steve Reed replied that he believes in change to open power to us, not to concentrate it.  The Council do not listen to him either.  He suggested community oversight of Brick by Brick but it was refused.  It is a question of governance, not if we don’t like what they have done.  The financial problems are partly due to the Council but mainly down to government funding cuts.  The Council did not reduce spending in line with the funding cuts, eg. Libraries are not closing as in other areas. They are catching up with the funding cuts.

Jasmine from Selhurst has been trying to get answers from the Council for 7 years but getting nowhere.  Every power in Croydon needs to be looked at.  Steve’s defence of Croydon Council is disingenuous, eg. The Croydon Park Hotel has cost a fortune but there is no refund for Council Tax payers when they cock up.  A mechanism to change the Council would be great, but how?

Steve Reed said that he does not run public services and can only contact the relevant people.  In the last 10 days he has had 250 requests from constituents asking for help getting people out of Afghanistan but he cannot always get people what they want.  He was not defending the Council.  He is a resident himself.  However, the question is whether having a mayor will make things better or worse.

The 10 poorest Councils have had 18x more cuts than the richest.  Croydon had a cut of £40 million whilst affluent Surrey got an additional £25 million.  If you don’t want to take services away, Councils were told to undertake commercial activity for profit which was intended to reduce the effect of the cuts.  However, the pandemic came and therefore there was no profit.  It is not only Labour Councils doing this.  We have seen COVID contracts given by the government to mats like a tin pot democracy.

We need change to make things better, not worse.  We need to put pressure on Councillors.  THCAT should get them to their meetings and challenge them to do that.  There are 40 Labour Councillors in Croydon and only 2 back having a mayor.

Andrea stated that Thornton Heath ward councillors do not turn up to our meetings. (Only Humayun Kabir of Bensham Manor Ward was there tonight).

6. 21 written questions were submitted in advance to THCAT out to Steve Reed on local issues

From Caroline Ridley

I don’t feel very safe in Thornton Heath.  I have been trying to get out and about in the area more since lockdown ended and tried going to Trumble Gardens, but there were lots of drunk people there, so I started going to the Rec but there were large groups of people smoking weed which made feel uncomfortable, so I started walking the streets and a few weeks later someone was stabbed to death on the very road I was using for my daily walk.

What are you doing to keep the area safe and ensure that green spaces like Trumble Gardens and the Rec are used in a way that promotes wellbeing rather than fear or hopelessness which is what I experience when I access them.

Steve Reed

Crime rises when poverty rises.  In the 70’s, the UK was the mot equal country in Europe.  Now it is the least equal and a gulf has developed.  Over the last 10 years, 600,000 more children have been pushed into poverty.  You pay the price from breakdown I mental health to crime and we will keep seeing this if this gulf continues.  We need a government committed to tackling crime and the causes of crime.  More than 21,000 police have been cut.  We used to have 7 for Thornton Heath.

Graham noted that now we have 3.

Andrea said that all 3 parks are in a similar condition as the budget has been cut to the bone.  There has been no grass cutting which lowers public perception of the area and makes matters worse.

Steve Reed restated the need for a Community Trust for parks.

Pip Sackett asked people not to forget that in Thornton Heath there is a huge hub of kindness.  She lost her daughter to Covid and people rallied round with help and support.  She urged people not to have a defeatist attitude.

Q. The playground in Grangewood is in a disgusting and unsafe.  £100,000 has been set aside to refurbish it but the Council cannot deliver.  They will not respond to requests to release this money.

Steve Reed It needs a Parks Trust.  You need to ask the Council for 1 or 2 very specific things to begin with.

Lynn You say we should come together as a community to help ourselves and take control.  What do you suggest we and our neighbours do in our own way to contribute to the realisation of this?

Andrea said the issues are ongoing over the past 10 years and not just due to the pandemic.

Steve Reed It is for Croydon to take the decisions.  You should ask the new leader to your meetings to hold them to account.

Andrea The leader has not answered an email since she became leader!

Steve Reed I will ask her.

You need to pick a couple of things you would like to do eg. Grangewood Park.  In terms of regeneration, shopping has gone on-line during the pandemic.  You could ask for a Regeneration Board in Thornton Heath to act as a pilot.

Andrea The Council spent large sums of money on consultants to do 2 regeneration reports for Thornton Heath but nothing happened.  Here the Councillors don’t want to engage.

Humayun Some Councillors reply but others don’t and people get angry.

Steve Reed This is not acceptable.

Humayun said grass cutting is on a 10-week cycle and the Rec was cut within the last 2 weeks.

Chris commented that local residents did at least some of it themselves.

Andrea said a large number of written questions were submitted and she will pass them on to Steve.

On HMO’s she said we were  are not against them  but wanted to see better living conditions for occupants so that they are not so squalid and do not cause the flytipping and ASB problems we get from them at present.

Question from Barbara

A planning application for an HMO on Melfort Road was refused by Croydon Council and the applicant appealed to the Secretary of State on appea and it was subsequently dismissed

However it seems that even in these circumstances, Croydon council is still considering issuing a licence for the property to be used as a HMO! We cannot have one arm of the Council contradicting the action of another, effectively breaching the law.

Steve Reed In 2011 the law changed to allow family sized homes to be converted to HMO’s.

Barbara said we campaigned for and got an Article 4 to prevent this but the Council say they will give a 1-year licence.  Croydon Council interpret the law in an antiquated way and do not apply logic.

Steve Reed asked Barbara to email the details of this case to him so that he can take it up.

Question from Jez Gibson

I would like to know what Steve's position is in relation to the number of poorly run and unsuitable HMO's there are in the area, and what personal undertakings he will make to protect the interests of neighbouring residents who are the victims of ASB and criminality as a result of such properties being used to house poorly managed, often vulnerable - but also sadly often criminal people.

Question from Yashika

1) What will be done about the illegal HMO’s in the area. The residents are often vulnerable and unsupervised causing major trouble with ASB?

2) How is the council’s bankruptcy going to be resolved?

3) Does the council have any intention to restore/refurbish the playground area in Grangewood Park?

4) is there any intention on behalf of the council for enforcement of any kind in terms of the lawlessness going on in TH? We are riddled with many different types of crime being committed with what seems to be very little enforcement?

5) With the influx of refugee and vulnerable families in TH at the moment what type of educational and Early year provision will be made for the families with young children?

Andrea We want Steve to put pressure on the Council to engage with us.

Steve Reed Focus on a small number of issues.  We cannot always get change, but always be CLEAR, INSISTANT and CONSISTENT.

Crystal Palace Park and Streatham Common are good examples.

Q. As a local resident and MP, what 3 things will Steve take from this meeting and chase to its end.  An MP must have more push than us.

Steve Reed It is not for me to choose the issues.  You need to give the Council your 3 issues.  I am in touch with the media a lot and can push that way ad I am very aware of the problems with the Council.  It is unacceptable for the Council to leave the borough in the current state. 20 weeks have gone by so the 10 week cycle they say they are working to isn’t true.

I am not a Councillor or a member of the government so I cannot distribute funding but we cannot sit back and suffer from the cuts.

Q. Are there no more strings you can pull?

Steve Reed No because I am Shadow Secretary of State not Secretary of State.

The biggest current issues I am dealing with now are the Afghan refugees with over 240 cases I the last 10 days of people with families stuck in Afghanistan.  We will undoubtedly get Afghan refugees here.  The government has put 700 refugees in the Imperial Hotel in Greenwich with no translators and zero support from government.  It has all had to come from the Council and donations.

Mohammed said if Councillors are not up to the job they should be got rid of.

Steve Reed said that he does not run the Council and has no authority there but he can back us up.

Andrea asked him to write to the Councillors of all three wards asking that one from each ward should come along to our meetings and also Councillor Ali, the leader.

Steve Reed said that when he was a Lambeth Councillor, he attended every local group at least once a year.

Andrea asked how he would support us if we decide which 3 issue are most important.

Steve Reed said how he will back us depends on the issues.  Eg. Re a Parks Trust, he could facilitate a meeting with the Council and representatives from Streatham Common and Crystal Palace.

7.Date of Next Meeting: Wednesday 13th October 7-8.30pm.  Venue to be confirmed.

CWM 4.9.21