Scrutinising the Fairfield Halls Contract and the Cabinet System

The Tories rightly referred to the Scrutiny Committee the decision of the Leader to select as preferred bidder BH Live as the manager of the Fairfield Halls.

Unfortunately this special meeting does not appear to have been webcast as it is not on the Council website webcast section website.

Two people who attended have given their views: Andy Hylton of Save Our Fairfield campaign, and Andrew Kennedy.

Save Our Fairfield welcomes BH Live

Andy Hylton writes:

‘Save Our Fairfield was invited by Croydon Council to attend the Scrutiny Committee meeting …. to discuss the appointment of BH Live as the future operator of Fairfield Halls. I had the opportunity to state our concerns to the team.

Question 1. With BH Live’s business plan heavily based around corporate hospitality and other events, can BH Live ensure that these other events will not hinder the programming of good quality stage and musical productions allowing this extensive school/community use of the facilities when it is required and will BH Live offer use of the facilities and technical equipment at reduced affordable rate, as the previous operator Fairfield (Croydon) Ltd had done?

Question 2. With the past musical heritage being such an important aspect of the venue, could BH Live demonstrate that they are planning to protect the reputation of Fairfield Halls, ranked as one of the very best orchestral performance spaces in Europe, and will orchestral performances be something that BH Live will be supporting regularly in their upcoming programming?

I was satisfied that both these concerns were being given consideration within the proposal from BH Live. There would be some Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) which will be used to measure and evaluate the objectives and performance of the new operator.  It was an excellent discussion and one of the most productive scrutiny meetings I have attended. There are still some heritage protection concerns to be discussed at a later date, but we now hope that we will be regularly involved with the process and look forward to meeting BH Live’s team.

Save Our Fairfield campaign support BH Live’s proposals, and we have a positive feeling about what they will bring to Croydon in terms of community, art and culture. We are looking forward to getting the schools and community events back into the venue at an affordable rate, and seeing the Fairfield Halls reopen as promised before Christmas 2018.

Further information on what is planned for Fairfield Halls can be seen at

http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/15244554.Ice_rink_could_be_coming_to_Croydon_as_part_of_Fairfield_Halls_redevelopment

http://www.croydonadvertiser.co.uk/what-to-expect-at-fairfield-halls-from-the-croydon-council-8217-s-preferred-operator/story-30293696-detail/story.html

The problems with Cabinet Government

Writing on Historic Croydon Facebook Andrew Kennedy argues how the Scrutiny process of the contract shows the problems with the Cabinet system of Government.

‘Councillor Timothy Godfrey’s expressed frustration with the Conservative (opposition) saying in effect that they had always been obstructive when it came to proposals for the Fairfield Halls and that calling in the decision for Scrutiny was causing further delay whilst Cllr Helen Pollard who called in the decision for scrutiny said in effect that she felt that they and by implication her constituents and the public had been left out of the decision making process. Well in my view both are correct and it is only at the eleventh hour have we got some form of agreement and the decision to go forward with an Operator albeit still with information lacking about whether there was a real alternative.

Setting aside whether having only one contender as Operator puts the Council Officers in a weak position when it comes to negotiating the final detail including how the contract will be monitored and what would trigger penalties if any, this highlights what is wrong with the decision making process in Croydon at the moment.

We have adopted decision making by Cabinet in contrast to the other major alternative, decision making by Committee (Since the Localism Act in 2000 and amendments – see Wikipedia).

The key advantage of by Cabinet is that the ruling party can get decisions made quickly because only a few members of the ruling party are involved with the Officers of the council and the checks and balances come in at a later date if and when the decision is called in by or to go before the Scrutiny Committee. That is the only time the opposition party are involved apart from in Council chamber debates.(The Scrutiny Committee is a multiparty committee though chaired by a member of the ruling party and with a majority of ruling party members.)

So here we were last night at the scrutiny meeting for the Fairfield Halls operator faced with decisions that had already been made and were now being called in. Well not exactly because it was the process of this particular decision that was being scrutinised more than the decision itself. Some financial terms deemed confidential though I know not why – probably because the deal had not yet been finalised but otherwise which should be in the public domain). Had due process been fully carried out? Who received what information when? Not so much about the commercial background and decision itself, but that’s getting ourselves lost in the process of the process and I don’t want to go there.

The problem is and remains that the Cabinet system leaves the opposition party and the public essentially out in the cold. There are no balancing voices early on in the decision making process apart from the Council Officers who therefore in consequence wield increased power. We saw that last night by a long and wordy speech by the Council Contracts Manager who justified all her actions and the decisions to act that she had taken as all being legal and proper.

In my view this Cabinet systems has led to the rancorous behaviour and the name calling in the chamber a due to frustration and lack of influence by the opposition who are also it must be said genuinely elected Councillors. We the public through our representatives of every hue and party are just not fully involved. We stand on the sidelines and witness the decisions only after they have been taken.

As a point of observation, it was particularly interesting and pleasing to see that the scrutiny meeting on this occasion was for the most part well mannered, calm and considered though the chairman did use a heavy hand on several occasions saying to an opposition spokesperson “May I remind you you are only here by invitation”. The reason why, as Cllr Sean Fitzsimons, the Committee’s chair and Labour member made clear “We are here during a period of party political purdah” and we must drop all references to party politics during this general election process. (Actually this is a voluntary convention and has no legal backing. Ed.)

So this is the knub of the problem here in Croydon. We have a Cabinet System of government which gives a few people and the officers of the Council too much power without scrutiny early on in the decision making process instead of a Committee System where the checks and balances and a much larger degree of transparency allow decisions to be made at any early stage. I think this system must change and I understand that we the public could call for this if we get together 5000 signatures on a petition. Does anyone know any more about this? How do we go forward? Do you want things to change?

For background reading just google “Cabinet vs Committee system in Local Government” or a similar question. Other councils have changed. Notably Brighton where Paula Murray who was also at the Scrutiny meeting has recently come from. I think she was a bit surprised that we had got where we were and that there was dissent with this decision making process with regards the Fairfield Halls.
https://present.brighton-hove.gov.uk/Published/C00000117/M00003264/AI00024865/$Cabinet%20Report%20for%20Localism%20Act%202011%20-%20Changing%20Governance%20Arrangements_v1.docA.ps.pdf

The decision making process and decisions will never be perfect. We cannot totally forsee the future but I cannot stress how strongly I feel that the decision making process, the chance to ask questions and put an alternative point of view and not one that is toadying up to the party leader and, in consequence the rancour between parties in the chamber has got to change.’

Croydon Assembly wants end to Cabinet system

In its People’s Plan for real change Taking control in Croydon The Croydon Assembly argues that ‘The Cabinet system of Croydon Council governance is anti-democratic, giving too much power to whoever in leaders and marginalising most councillors from involvement in decision-making.  …..The pre-Cabinet model of running the council should be re-introduced.’

Previous Critique of the Cabinet System

https://seancreighton1947.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/fairfield-halls-victim-of-cabinet-government

 

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About seancreighton1947

Since moving to Norbury in July 2011 I have been active on local economy issues with Croydon TUC and Croydon Assembly, and am a member of the latter's Environment Forum. I am a member of the 5 Norbury Residents Associations Joint Planning Committee, and a Governor of Norbury Manor Primary School. I write for Croydon Citizen at http://thecroydoncitizen.com. I co-ordinate the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History Networks and advise the North East People's History Project.. I give history talks and lead history walks. I retired in 2012 having worked in the community/voluntary sector and on heritage projects. My history interests include labour movement, mutuality, Black British, slavery & abolition, Edwardian roller skating and the social and political use of music and song. I have a particular interest in the histories of Battersea and Wandsworth, Croydon and Lambeth. I have a publishing imprint History & Social Action Publications.
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