DID WE HAVE NEWS FOR YOU: In our final instalment of our annual review of the stories that attracted the most attention in 2021, we reach the season of missed opportunities and not much fruitfulness, as far as Croydon Labour was concerned, with a comprehensive defeat in the Mayoral referendum, plus the latest scandals to emerge from the council’s financial meltdown
After all the talk of “fat cat mayors”, of suggestions that they might deliberately break election spending laws, and the gagging of councillors and party members, Steve Reed and Croydon’s Labour leadership took a helluva beating at the borough-wide mayoral referendum at the start of the month.
Some of their colleagues had, not unreasonably, suggested that arguing in favour of running the bankrupt council in the same way that they’d run it under the discredited Tony Newman was really not such a good idea.
Leading Labour councillors at the Town Hall – the likes of Sean “No Scrutiny” Fitzsimons, Stuart “Newman’s stooge” Collins and Hamida “Apologetic” Ali, the council leader, all relics of the failed old regime – tried to ignore the views of the majority of their fellow party members and one of the borough’s three constituency Labour parties, by backing the status quo.
But despite the Labour leadership squandering more than £10,000 of precious campaign funds opposing a change to a directly-elected Mayor, every single one of the 28 wards around the borough voted in favour of change.
Four times as many Croydon residents voted for change as backed the discredited old system: 11,519 to 47,165. Next May will see an election for Croydon’s first executive Mayor.
The huge political error that the likes of Collins, Ali and Progress MP Steve Reed OBE made was to make the referendum a vote on the record of the Labour council.
They all got the answer they deserved.
Reed drove his party’s opposition campaign against having a directly elected Mayor, posting misleading statements in little social media videos.
In the end, Reed didn’t even have the good grace to bother to turn up for the count and to witness the comprehensive defeat that he helped to cause.
After all the poor judgement and “corporate blindness” of the previous five years, Reed, Ali and the remaining Newman numpties had somehow managed to compound all that with a nasty campaign and displays of bad faith with the electorate.
Even as the count was getting underway, some in the local Labour party felt it necessary to issue apologies on social media “on behalf of our party” for the attacks made against the DEMOC campaign by one of Newman’s more favoured (ie. handed juicier allowances) councillors. “Please bear with us,” they wrote. “We need your votes next May.” Gallows humour indeed.
Inside Croydon’s editorial line throughout the process of petitioning and campaigning for the system change was always that, what was on offer, was less than the truly radical change that is required. We even came up with a hashtag for the mayoral switch: #ABitLessShit.
It seems that the Croydon electorate tended to agree.
The turn-out on the day was overall very, very poor: just 21 per cent, demonstrating that what might fascinate the Croydon Establishment and members of the Town Hall allowances bubble is often much less a priority for the people they are supposed to serve.
Turn-out next May, for the Mayoral and councillor elections, ought to be better.
Also in October, through the magic of the interweb, we managed to find a tool to help our readers locate petrol stations where fuel was still available for sale.
Given the soaring fuel prices experienced in the weeks since, has anyone else considered that this was really all just a ruse by the multi-nationals to help push up their profit margins?
And the council’s financial collapse yielded yet another scandal in October, with the Labour councillor and cabinet member responsible for the borough’s assets discovered to have presided over the bargain-basement sale of the Croydon Park Hotel to a development firm represented by… King’s own employers.
Katharine Street sources suggest that the hotel may have been sold for around £10million less than the £29.8million that the council – Newman and his finance henchman, Simon Hall – paid for the 211-room four-star hotel in 2018.
The hotel went bust in the middle of the first lockdown in 2020, with the loss of another 92 job losses in the town centre.
Sources confirmed that the hotel site’s new owners are indeed a company that is, or has been, represented by the Terrapin Group, the property PR firm run by Peter Bingle, where King has worked since earlier this year as a senior account director.
This is the same Stuart King who is the deputy leader of the council and the cabinet member for “Croydon renewal”. According to the council’s website, at the top of the long list of responsibilities of King’s cabinet brief is “assets management”.
This includes the sale of tens of millions of pounds’ worth of Brick by Brick sites and other public property. Including the Croydon Park Hotel.
Our resident lawyer, Ebenezer Grabbit, of the widely respected firm of solicitors Sue, Grabbit and Runne, asks us to point out here that there is no suggestion of any wrong-doing on King’s behalf. King has assured Inside Croydon personally that he has recused himself from all meetings and briefings where his day job with Bingle might have come close to his public duties as a Croydon councillor.
But to be able to regard any of this as acceptable conduct at Croydon’s crisis-hit council is either hugely naive or monumentally stupid.
Or maybe King and his council colleagues really do believe that the Croydon public are stupid.
After all, this is the same Croydon Labour group that for six years gave Paul Scott, while he was the director of a firm of architects, a “special dispensation” so that he would never have to declare any interests while he was chair of… the planning committee, dealing with hundreds of multi-million-pound applications from developers, and architects, and Westfield, for whom Scott’s firm, TP Bennett, also worked.
The first anniversary of Croydon Council issuing its Section 114 Notice and admitting that they had gone bust brought with it the realisation that there had been so many job cuts, the local authority now could no longer perform even the most routine of its functions.
Research by Inside Croydon discovered…
- The case of the bereaved resident forced to endure a six-week delay to receive her own father’s death certificate;
- Multiple sets of proud parents forced to wait nearly six months to register their child’s birth;
- House-holders who had been served with court summonses after the council failed to answer the phones to take their Council Tax payments; and…
- The £1.6billion pension fund committee that had not had any of its meeting minuted for more than a year.
Elsewhere in November, two of our most-read articles were pieces contributed by our loyal readers.
One helped us to reveal that a High Court judge has ruled against Croydon’s planning department, quashing the decision of a senior council official to grant permission for a block of flats in Sanderstead, a ruling that could invalidate dozens of similar planning approvals around the borough, and also cause mortgage lenders to withdrawn their lending for some properties that had been built without proper planning permission.
And we also welcomed back to Croydon Wendy’s, whose use of a heritage 1960s building in a key location on George Street provided a feast for the eyes.
The last month of this wretched year saw our readers eager to find out more about train cancellations into Victoria and the soaring covid infection rates at local hospitals.
But, gratifyingly, two pieces of our regular investigative journalism, including one story which broke on Christmas Eve, kept our loyal reader up to speed with the shenanigans going on in and around Fisher’s Folly. Brick by Brick, the council-owned failed house-builders, reported a £25.26million loss in the company’s latest annual accounts.
And the report also showed that the company’s borrowings – all from Croydon Council – payable within one year had cranked up to £229million.
The accounts to March 2021 were released by Companies House on Christmas Eve morning, in the latest crass attempt to sweep the bad news under a carpet.
Not only had Brick by Brick’s poor management, slow rate of completions and failure to deliver council homes helped to bankrupt the council, their incompetence had also left a trail of wreckage at the Fairfield Halls, which the company, led by former council employee Colm Lacey, was supposed to refurbish.
This month, Inside Croydon obtained a copy of a document that agreed external auditors’ lines of enquiry into the deal which handed the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls to Brick by Brick in the first place – which included no fewer than FOUR potential areas of unlawful conduct by the council’s senior officials, councillors or Brick by Brick.
The investigation into the £70million Fairfield Halls fiasco, by Grant Thornton, was commissioned more than 12 months ago. It has still yet to be made public.
Which sort of suggests that, in 2022, eight years after we first started reporting on the council’s ill-considered housing developers, we will still be digging into a sorry business that Town Hall chiefs would rather remained in the shadows.
Happy New Year to all our readers, except for Tony Newman and Jo Negrini…
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