Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities. He is a former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
The Blair era brought about a lot of constitutional reform – and one of those reforms was the introduction of the directly-elected mayor in London boroughs. Only four of London’s 32 councils adopted this structure: Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets. However, Croydon will now also be governed by this system after an effective grassroots campaign raised a 20,000 signature petition (of which 17,000 were unique and valid). The failing Croydon Labour council did its utmost to stop an election taking place and deliberately misinterpreted the Covid regulations to claim the referendum could not be held until 2022.
In the end a referendum for a directly elected mayor was held last year and every single ward in the Borough voted for change and to move to a Directly Elected Mayor for Croydon. 80 per cent of residents backed this change, despite Croydon Labour’s campaign to stick with the current failed system. In the meantime, the Labour-run council was officially declared bankrupt last year. This Labour council ran up a staggering £1.5 billion debt and is the first London Council to go bust in 20 years. The council’s external auditors highlighted in their damning report that the council had “not responded promptly to previous audit recommendations and concerns…” and that “…numerous opportunities have been missed in recent years to tackle the Council’s financial position.”
The borough received a £120m government bailout last year, the biggest to a UK council, but continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. An allegation of fraud has also been made to police over the £67.5m revamp of Fairfield Halls and an investigation has just been announced, with a firm specialising in ‘investigating issues relating to fraud, corruption, money laundering and embezzlement’ appointed to handle it. It is a sorry record, and it is no wonder that Croydon Council’s Leader, Labour’s Cllr Hamida Alia, has announced she will be standing down in May.
Cllr Jason Perry who leads the Conservative opposition group on the council is the Conservative mayoral candidate. Jason is a proud Croydonian, born and bred, who wants to restore pride in Croydon. He faces seasoned London politician, Val Shawcross, who was the council leader in the 1990s and has spent twenty years at City Hall.
Despite being a former council leader for 6 years, I am a huge advocate of directly elected borough mayors. Here are some of the failings of the current council leader system:
- Zero accountability. No one knows who is responsible for major decisions, such as raising Council Tax.
- Buck passing. Council leaders often fail to fix local problems like the emergency closure of Hammersmith Bridge or a knife crime epidemic. Instead, the council leader passes the buck and prefers to play the political blame game when he or she should be taking action.
- Undemocratic. In Hammersmith & Fulham, the current Leader of the Council is elected by two small groups: the residents of Hammersmith Broadway ward and their own Labour colleagues.
Mayors matter. Mayors can’t hide behind others – the buck always stops with them. A directly-elected Mayor would have a clear mandate to deliver his promises. A directly-elected Mayor would be a visible local champion. A directly-elected Mayor can work with councillors from all parties who want to improve local services for residents – not just those from their own party.
If a directly-elected Mayor doesn’t deliver on his promises and fix problems – like the closure of Hammersmith Bridge to all road vehicles including buses and ambulances for nearly three years – or knife crime – then voters can vote them out after four years. A Mayor has to listen to every single ward – even safe ones – as every vote counts equally. This was the main issue in Croydon as Labour could win the council while ignoring (and in fact deliberately dumping on) much of the borough as all the marginal wards are in Croydon Central (Croydon South is almost all Conservative and Croydon North all Labour).
Finally, we are more likely to win under a Mayoral system than under a ward system as turnout in Conservative wards tends to be higher than in Labour ones. I hope where Croydon has gone, more London boroughs will follow.