This article was first published on The Croydon Citizen on 30/07/2016
To whom is Brick by Brick accountable?
Maybe I don’t get out enough, but Croydon Question Time at October’s meeting of Croydon Council was a highlight of my week. Passion, humour, confusion, the occasional flash of enlightenment, spiced with a dash of knockabout politics. It made for an entertaining half hour.
The mayor, councillor Trakas-Lawlor, got my man-of-the-match award for his good-humoured chairing of what was – at times – a difficult session. Chairing council meetings is an important part of the job, but it’s not always obvious that an ability in that regard figures in the selection criteria for mayor. Let’s that hope councillor Trakas-Lawlor’s successors live up to his standards.
My modest contribution was a question on the governance of Brick by Brick Croydon Limited, the council’s new, wholly-owned housing company, about which I have previously written in the Citizen. Councillor Butler responded with what is already in the public domain and avoided answering what might be available to the public. Sadly, the question time format has changed since last I attended – indeed, it seemed to change on the day – so no follow-up questions were allowed. Past experience tells me that I wouldn’t have been answered, anyway.
What is in the public domain is that Brick by Brick is a limited company wholly owned by the council. There are no councillors on the board, which is made up of two independent members and two council-nominated members, both council officers. Officers (presumably different officers) attend board meetings as observers on behalf of the council as shareholder. As a private company, freedom of information does not apply.
So, despite having the benefit of backing from council financial resources, it is entirely unaccountable to the people of Croydon. There are not many matters where I agree with the InsideCroydon website, but this is one of them. Brick by Brick Croydon Limited can very easily avoid public scrutiny.
Why does that matter? Well, Brick by Brick will deliver development schemes by making deals with building contractors; participating in joint ventures with other developers or investors and combinations thereof. To prevent cross-subsidies between projects, Brick by Brick may set up ‘special purpose vehicles’ or subsidiaries to ring-fence liability between projects.
Lots of business-speak there, but the bottom line is that the money – and likely quite a lot of money – will, in the end, come from the council. The rewards, if any, but also the risks, will all eventually lead back to the public purse.
No doubt praise will be heaped on Brick by Brick by the Labour administration. The Tory opposition will pour scorn. We the public will have no idea of who is telling the truth and no way of finding out. Open and transparent government this isn’t.
But what is Brick by Brick set up to do? The worthy-but-lengthy answers can be found in the council’s documentation: make money for the public purse, build quality houses and so forth. The public documents are filled with the double-speak of which I have previously written.
In her reply, councillor Butler described the objective as more affordable housing (the vast majority of which is social housing for rent). The public documentation also makes that clear, adding that the intention is to do so in such a way as to avoid the right-to-buy option.
This matters, because a company is driven by its objectives – and decisions get made mainly based on the highest priority. If your primary objective is to build houses quickly, of whatever tenure, you will choose different projects from those that you would build if your objective is to maximise the proportion of social housing.
There is no right and wrong here. Political parties stand on manifestos and are ultimately held accountable by the electorate. This council has chosen social housing as a priority for Brick by Brick. That’s fine, but if you want to buy your own house, or you like right to buy, or you think that producing more houses quickly of whatever tenure is more important than prioritising social housing, then Brick by Brick doesn’t see you as the priority. Whether the proportion of social housing is more important than how many and how quickly they are built is, as far as I can see, unspecified.
Which leaves us with a company whose overriding purpose is clear, which may deliver rewards whilst exposing us to risks, but we will not know exactly what it is doing or how well it is doing it. I’ll leave you to decide whether you think that that’s a good deal.