This article was originally published by The Croydon Citizen on 22/02/2016
The challenges of implementing the Croydon Fairness Commission report
Sean Creighton analyses the challenges and possibilities for change in Croydon’s community and institutions in the wake of January’s report. The Croydon Opportunity & Fairness Commission published its final report on 28th January. There is much to commend in it.
Despite many omissions in its discussion of issues and challenges, the report provides a blueprint for the future, an agenda on which civic activists can work to pressure the council and other bodies into implementing the recommendations.
The council’s cabinet will welcome the report and agree to accept it as the basis for further consideration during future policy-making, allowing more time to cost the recommendations and to analyse whether changes in existing expenditure can be made to implement some of the report’s suggestions. On the other hand the council’s cabinet may simply welcome the report and yet shelve implementation because of `cutbacks and reduced staffing (600 jobs this year).
Some recommendations are addressed to both the council and the Clinical Commissioning Group, which will also have implementation problems as it has an £18m funding shortfall in the coming financial year.
The other challenge of implementation is how to persuade the academy school owners and headteachers to act on the changes recommended for schools.
Given that the report backs the important role of civic activism and the need for more devolved decision making, the challenge for the wide range of the hundreds of community and voluntary organisations, is how to decide to translate what the commission is recommending into their own day-to-day practices. For most of them, over-stretched and with little funding, this will be a very difficult task.
The commission stresses the importance of neighbourhood networks. Networks are forms of organisation within the community and voluntary (‘civic activism’) sector. If networking is to be more than simply informal social get-togethers and the sharing of information, there has to be people willing to be organisers; part and parcel of an organisational structure and funding.
The local branches of the main political parties could consider the report and ask their councillors and their appointees on school governing bodies what they are doing to ensure implementation.
There are many gaps in the range of issues addressed in the report including the different meanings of the word ‘community,’ conflicting views and needs within it, the relationship between the community and voluntary sector with the council, the need for improved protection of the historic built environment, the linkages between transport, air pollution and food hygiene, and inequalities, health and well-being, the continuing issues arising from the 2011 riots and flooding incidents and the role of arts and culture outside the town centre as an integral part of tackling social isolation and children’s learning.
The commission stresses the importance of people-led change and has many positive ideas as to how this can be achieved: it puts a welcome new emphasis on citizen activism, as something different from volunteering.
It wants to see devolution of decision-making to neighbourhood level. Unfortunately it does not discuss the many building blocks this requires:
- The executive system of governance marginalising backbench and reducing democracy among councillors
- The granting of planning permissions even when it is clear there are valid grounds to refuse, especially when there is strong opposition
- The inability of residents and their associations to comment at Planning Committee on the pre-application plans
- The fear many community and voluntary activists have of putting their heads above the barricades – which social media trollism exacerbates
- The way in which officers decide what they want to happen and are then surprised when local people object
- The futility of writing to councillors in the hope that at cabinet they will amend papers
- The continued saga of non-replies by councillors to letters and emails
- The perceived bogusness of most consultations
- The prevention of key information from public scrutiny under the guise of ‘commercial confidentiality’
- The partnerships with developers behind closed doors
- The distrust of the council regardless of political control because of the past way it has dealt with people, organisations and issues
A fundamental change in the political culture is needed in Croydon with a return to the former committee style of governance along with district committees.
The commission believes that there is more scope to involve people in volunteering. If more and more Croydon residents experience the life stresses discussed by the commission they will not have the time, the money or the energy to volunteer. Volunteers need support. This requires paid volunteer organisers and the funds to process criminal record checks.
There is plenty of scope for more support for each other between neighbours, especially to reduce social isolation. However, this requires people to take an initiative to introduce themselves to neighbours they do not know. If people who are isolated due to age or long-term illness are to be encouraged to come and meet others, money is needed for activities in local halls. This goes back to the role of residents’ associations, and also of faith groups whose congregations are largely rooted in the local neighbourhood.
The commission is strong on the need to have more employers adopting the London Living Wage. It names a few that do not. A Westfield director signed up to the report, so can we expect a statement from the Westfield/Hammerson partnership promising to make a condition of tenancies in the new shopping centre that businesses must pay the wage? Can we expect Boxpark to do the same, given its £3m council loan and the preferential money-making opportunities it is being given, if the rumour is true that this year’s Ambition Festival will be based there?