Ahead of the Local Elections this week, Adam Hardy of DevComms takes a look at the chances of Labour-held Croydon turning blue.
This week all 70 seats at the Labour controlled Croydon Borough Council will be up for election. There will also be a new position on the ballot paper: a directly elected Mayor. Labour currently hold 40 seats, but much has changed since the last election took place in 2018. A combination of factors, from frequent financial troubles to the new Mayoral system, make Labour’s hold on this particular borough look vulnerable. Whilst Labour insiders are hopeful they can retain control, they are acutely aware that the last few days in the campaign are pivotal in galvanising their support base and getting them to the ballot box.
Over the past few years, the Labour administration in Croydon has been swamped by financial issues. In November 2020 the council faced an unbalanced budget and issued two successive Section 114 notices, leading to restricted spending on non-essential services. In early 2021, a non-statutory review criticised the way the council handled financial risk and noted ‘poorly managed commercial ventures.’
Bolstered by a government capitalisation directive, the council ended the section 114 notice in March 2021. However, financial problems have not gone away. In early 2022 the council was investigated by the Metropolitan Police over an allegation of fraud, in connection to the redevelopment of the Fairfield Halls arts centre. By late March the controversy was still in the news, with reports that the council had appointed a firm to conduct a fraud investigation into the matter.
Around this time it was also reported the council was facing another section 114, this time due to potentially ‘misusing’ £73 million received from council housing companies.
There has also been fierce criticism in the media for ‘appalling conditions’ at council flats on Regina Road, following a report by ITV News. Last year Conservative Cllr Lynne Hale called Croydon a ‘slum landlord’ and at the time of the ITV report the CEO of Shelter condemned what were the ‘worst housing conditions they (had) ever seen.’
It is therefore no surprise that Labour sources recently told the Evening Standard that there are real concerns about losing control of Croydon.
The Mayoral Election
In 2021 around 80 per cent of Croydon residents voted to adopt a directly elected mayor model, despite the Labour group campaigning against the system.
The Labour candidate taking on this challenge is Val Shawcross, a former leader of Croydon Borough Council and a respected name in the Labour party. Some voters will associate her with good governance from her time as leader in the late nineties, which will be to her advantage. Val Shawcross also has significant experience as a London Assembly member and Chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. Most recently, she was Deputy Mayor of Transport for London under Sadiq Khan and has strong name recognition across the borough.
Importantly, Val Shawcross has not been a councillor at Croydon for over 20 years, which will help distance her from the recent troubled years at the top of the council. In April she told local media that ‘Croydon had been badly led’ and ‘needed a shake up.’ In her manifesto, Val Shawcross promises ‘robust financial management systems and tight contract management.’
Unsurprisingly, Conservative Mayoral candidate Jason Perry has also pledged to bring financial stability to the borough by reducing borrowing and overspending.
Regarding the built environment, there are striking similarities between the two candidates’ pledges. Jason Perry intends to promote design-led planning and move away from high density development. To help achieve this he will revoke the Croydon Suburban Design Guide and end the use of intensification zones.
Val Shawcross has stated that she would also reduce intensification in Croydon’s Local Plan. She would support suburban development, such as family sized homes and terraced properties. She would also oppose building on green spaces. Both Conservative and Labour candidates are also keen to promote town centre regeneration and mixed-use developments.
In response to the recent social housing controversies, Jason Perry has stated that major change is required to improve the culture around social housing in the Council. He has pledged to adopt a ‘Tenants’ Charter’ which will be ‘written by council tenants.’ Matching his policy almost word for word, Val Shawcross will also adopt a tenants’ charter, as well as creating a ‘tenants’ forum’ to ensure tenants’ voices are heard.
At the 2018 Croydon elections, Labour won numerous seats by commanding margins. After these elections, there were only two wards with Labour candidates on majorities of less than 200 votes (Addiscombe East, represented by a Conservative and Labour member, and New Addington South).
There have been several by-elections since then, which have seen some improvements by the Conservatives in Labour held seats. The New Addington North by-election in 2021, for instance, was close between the winning Labour candidate and the second-placed Conservative candidate.
The Conservatives would however need to win 7 more seats this week to gain control of the council. Amid scandals at a national level affecting the Conservative government, this may prove a tall order.
For Labour, this election may well come down to voter apathy. Labour insiders do not seem particularly worried about voters switching allegiance to the Tories but are concerned that some may choose to stay away from the ballot box altogether. Focus will shift considerably to their well-oiled GOTV (Get out the vote) operation to encourage, cajole and convince their supporters to show up on the day.
Val Shawcross and the Croydon Labour Group will nevertheless take encouragement from a recent opinium poll which predicts the party will hold on to Croydon in 2022. Furthermore, the appearance of big Labour front benchers in Croydon, such as Angela Rayner and David Lammy, compared to the distinct lack of heavy hitters from the Conservatives, suggests the party expect that after Thursday, the borough will still be red.
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