Mr Barwell and Chris Philp, Conservative MPs for Croydon Central and Croydon South, have launched a campaign, backed by ten residents’ groups, calling for the borough to have an elected mayor like London.
They believe the system would be fairer because the ruling party would be more accountable and less likely to favour one area of the town over another.
The petition could force a referendum on the issue if it is signed by five per cent of the borough’s population – approximately 12,500 people.
Croydon Labour Group – which has controlled the council since May 2014 – have reacted furiously, accusing the campaign of being “self-serving”, “undemocratic” and even “anti-women”.
Mr Barwell believes their opposition to the idea has prompted the council to change the legal advice he had been given about the process in order to make it harder for the petition to reach its target.
In March the former Coulsdon West councillor asked chief executive Nathan Elvery whether an e-petition would be acceptable, after being advised by the independent House of Commons Library that such decisions were left to the discretion of each local authority.
In an email seen by the Advertiser, Mr Elvery replied that, having taken legal advice, “it would be acceptable for an electronic petition to trigger a referendum for a mayor election”.
But, on the eve of launching the campaign last Thursday, Mr Barwell received a phone call from Jo Negrini – to be confirmed interim chief executive following Mr Elvery’s imminent departure to West Sussex County Council – who said the advice had changed and the signatures had to be collected by hand.
As a result the campaign began without a petition while a solution is sought.
Mr Barwell said: “I think it reflects very badly on how the council is run.
“We received clear, unambiguous written advice from the chief executive that he would accept an electronic petition and then, at the point we were about to go public, that advice was changed by someone whose long-term appointment is in the hands of the politicians.
“To me it appears the council is run like a tin pot dictatorship where the basic things you should expect, such as independent advice, no longer apply.”
A council spokesman said the guidance issued in March was “based on the information the council had at the time”.
He added that, because the issue was “extremely important”, the council sought additional independent legal advice on May 31. This advice, received on June 6, appears to be that an online petition could be subject to a legal challenge.
“The issue of electronic signatures and the associated legislation is complex and open to interpretation,” said the spokesman.
“It has always been the council’s intention to provide [Mr Barwell] with the most up-to-date information that we had to assist him to submit a valid petition that would not be liable to a legal challenge.”
Mr Barwell said: “The chief executive took legal advice and gave me an answer. I think I’m entitled to expect it to be the council’s position. Why did anyone feel the need to commission further advice?
“The leader of the council has tweeted that I am trying to impose an unwanted mayor on the borough. Actually what I’m trying to do is have a referendum to see if the people of Croydon agree with the idea or not.
“The person who doesn’t what that is him and it’s increasingly clear the council is led by someone who won’t attend public meetings with residents, doesn’t want to be held directly accountable for the way he does the job and is prepared to lean on council officers to intervene so people are prevented from having their democratic say. I think it’s a pretty scandalous situation.”
Labour politicians in Croydon have made their feelings abundantly clear since the campaign was launched last week. In a 1,500-word letter, Sean Fitzsimons, chair of the scrutiny and overview committee, accused the Conservatives of being “bad losers” who wanted to “overthrow” Labour’s “democratic mandate” and replace it with a “fundamentally flawed system of local government”.
He said a mayoral vote would favour the Tories because people in more affluent areas are more likely to vote and described the idea as “anti-women” because, of the 16 elected mayors in England, only four are female.
Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, sought advice on the cost of a referendum from the House of Commons Library, which said the figure could be £415,000 if held on its own or £115,000 if done alongside a local election. Cllr Fitzsimons claims the cost would be closer to £1 million when other factors such as staffing, legal advice and publicity are taken into account.
Cllr Newman branded the plan “sexist” and accused Mr Barwell of a “self-indulgent attack on local democracy”.
Mr Barwell described the criticism as “nonsense”.
He said: “There’s certainly a problem in politics that it’s too male dominated but I’ve not seen any credible argument why this system should be more open to than the alternative.
“I don’t think the evidence backs up that the mayor would be more likely to be Conservative. Steve O’Connell very narrowly won the borough-wide vote in the London Assembly elections but at the general election Labour won it, as they did at the last council elections.
“I think there’s very little to choose between the two systems in terms of the outcome. The important thing is that, if we had a Labour directly elected mayor, he or she is going to have to listen to the areas I represent. At the moment [Cllr Newman] can afford to completely ignore large chunks of them.
“It’s an improvement whoever wins; it’s not about trying to change the result.”