It is very important that we look at what is happening to Fairfield Halls in its wider context and to see how while it is not a party political issue, it is a political issue about the way local authorities are run, regardless of which political party is in control’ argued Sean Creighton as a member of the panel at the SaveOurFairfield public meeting on Wednesday 6 April.
It is political because politicians have made the decision to close the Halls rather than accept the case for part closure/opening.
The Cabinet System
The Cabinet system gives all power to the Leader who is appointed under the Council constitution for the whole of the period until the next local elections, and can decide who are the Cabinet members with the specific policy and service briefs. This means that most Councillors are not involved in decision making, that the party groupings have little say in what happens, and many back benchers are marginalised if they raise concerns or ask questions which are deemed to be critical.
One of the problems with full-time Councillors is that they become too close to the officers and have become trapped into the development of the local corporate state believing that private developers will help to sort out basic problems. There is an arrogance that the Councillors and officers know best and that therefore top-down imposed solutions are the best, ignoring the development of polices through proper engagement with local communities, residents and service users. Where Councillors and officers fall out as in Lambeth over the future of the Libraries the situation can become more complex. Unfortunately what Lambeth is doing is having a devastating effect on Upper Norwood Library which Croydon Council part funds.
The Power of Private Developers
The Borough’s future is being driven by the developers whose tower block residential schemes are not addressing the housing needs of Croydon. They are pushing up prices and rents which are making the problems of inequality greater. It has become clear that the new Whitfgift Centre aims to attract motorist customers from Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Most of the retail jobs that are promised will be lower paid.
The Difficulties of Dialogue with the Council
I am sure that many of you consider that it is still possible to have constructive dialogue with the Council. I am sorry to have to say that the experience of many people active across a wide range of services and issues who have attempted to have such dialogue have found the Council is not willing. Its public consultations are usually tokenistic. Letters and emails go unanswered to the extent that in December I had to table a question as to why there had been no replies, which then took the Leader’s office over 2 months to reply to in detail, with further correspondence having to be engaged in because keys points had gone unanswered.
Those of us who email Councillors about papers at Cabinet and other Committees suggesting additional recommendations or asking them to ask questions find they are largely ignored.
What Can Be Done?
It also needs to be said that attempts to build the foundations for collective action on a number of issues has proved incredibly difficult. Most of Croydon is asleep. The activists are riven with personality and past organisational disputes or are struggling to keep their own organisations and projects afloat. The Council manipulates this to divide and rule.
It also has to be understood that Croydon’s population is changing all the time. Large numbers of newcomers are moving in. The Town Centre will have a much larger and new population. The historic memory of the Halls will therefore be eroded year by year unless ways are found to keep its importance alive. The closure of the Whitgift Centre from early 2017 to 2020 means that the Town Centre is going to have no major attraction for people to come to. It is also going to be a massive building site. Boxpark may attract people because of its location next to East Croydon Station. Attracting people back to a re-opened Halls in September 2018 is going to be a struggle, which is why the arguments of the Theatre Trust for a staged refurbishment are so important.
What I have said sounds pessimistic. We have to understand the nature of the beast we are dealing with and our own collective action weaknesses, and think through strategies and tactics which may lead to a change in the decision or which will influence the consequences of not changing the decision.
For practical suggestions for action see