Question time with the Leader of the Council, Councillor Tony Newman.
The Leader of the Council, Councillor Tony Newman, was in attendance at the meeting to provide an update for the Committee and answer questions arising. During the introduction to this item the following points were noted:-
· In light of ongoing cuts to the Council budget from central Government, the Administration had taken a clear view that the Budget proposals for 2019/20 would seek the maximum increase in both Council Tax and the Adult Social Care precept to continue to protect frontline funding.
· The redevelopment of the Fairfield Halls continued towards completion, with the venue due to reopen in September 2019.
· Work was underway on building the Legacy Onside Youth Zone, which once complete would have provision for 200 – 250 young people to use the facility every night of the week.
· Progress continued to be made on a number of different housing developments through Brick by Brick, with families from across the borough starting to move into properties as they were completed. Work was continuing on the redevelopment of the Taberner House site which would provide over 500 homes, 50% of which would be affordable.
· The Council continued to maintain ongoing investment into the Children’s Service following the disappointing results from an Ofsted inspection in July 2017. As a result the Service was starting to see improvement in performance data and was heading in the right direction. A key priority for the budget was to maintain the increased investment to ensure that the good work continued.
· There had initially been controversy over changes made to bins as part of the Sustainable Croydon project, but the change was required if the Council was to achieve its targeted recycling rate of 50%.
· Croydon’s Violence Reduction Unit was a priority for the Administration as part of its work for Safer Croydon.
· The Council had recently been awarded funding of £500,000 to help to develop a Creative Enterprise Zone in the borough. Work was also underway on the Music City project which would give recognition to the music coming out of Croydon, as well as the musical heritage of the borough.
· The Sustainable City project was aimed at ensuring that growth in the borough provided benefits to the residents of Croydon. The project covered a wide range of factors including the need to create sustainable jobs and transport as well as environmental measures. The key challenge for the Council was to ensure that infrastructure in the borough matched the growth.
It was noted that the Government’s review of Fair Funding was due to conclude in February and as such it was questioned what the Council could do to ensure that the funding issues facing itself and other outer London borough were addressed. The Leader highlighted that the Fair Funding Campaign in Croydon had always received cross party support. A strong case had been made to the review on behalf of Croydon, with the initial indication being encouraging that outer London boroughs may come out in a better position than at present, but this was still uncertain.
Concern was raised that despite increased resources being invested in the Children’s Service the outcomes were not improving as quickly as may have been hoped. In response it was highlighted that the changes made to the service, including the extra resources, had led to improvements in many of the key indicators, but others would take longer to turn around.
As a follow up it was questioned when looked after children would start to see the results of the improvement work, to which it was advised that they were already seeing results. Recent Ofsted reports had shown that outcomes for young people were improving and the Administration was committed to delivering long term improvement.
It was noted that Croydon was looking to adopt the Glasgow model to reducing knife crime through using a public health approach and as such it was questioned how this would work in practice in the borough. The Leader advised that the first event with partners involved in the project had been held earlier that day and given the strong history of partnership working in the borough and a strong voluntary sector there was every reason to hope that positive results could be achieved. A lot of the work would be from the ground up such as a long term preventative approach in schools.
As it had been highlighted that the Council was aiming to achieve a recycling rate of 50%, it was questioned whether there were similar targets for the reduction of waste and to encourage reuse. It was advised that there was a key role for both local and national government to educate and encourage people to reduce waste, with a lot of good work taking place in schools on a local level.
In response to a question about how delays to developments were effecting the local community it was advised that it had been the right decision to extend the redevelopment of the Fairfield Halls. This was to take into account unforeseen work arising from the building, which was the second biggest cultural venue in London after the Southbank, as the final development would be excellent. The Westfield development was still looking very positive and in a challenging retail environment, Croydon was looking as strong as anywhere.
As a follow up the start date for the Westfield project was questioned. It was advised that the exact start was currently been determined, but a recent meeting with the new Chief Executive had given very encouraging signs about their commitment to Croydon and the green agenda with positive discussions on transport provision and car parking.
In response to a question about the loss of senior officers, it was advised that while it was always disappointing to lose senior officers, the current team was excellent in terms of skills and was also a reflection of the borough. It was often the case that if you employed talented people, then they would be attractive to other organisations.
The Leader was questioned about his expectations for the Governance Review that was currently in progress. It was advised that it was hoped that it would be radical and would take into account factors such as the use of technology and devolution. It would also be positive to look at how the Council used its influence with other organisations and partners to deliver improvements for residents and the local area.
As there had been concerns about the new bin collection and street cleaning service, introduced in September 2018, the Leader was asked for his view on how well the new service was performing. It was advised that although these services had improved since the new contract commenced in September, there were issues around the consistency of the service across the borough which were being addressed with Veolia by the Portfolio Holder, Councillor Stuart Collins on a weekly basis. If the service did not improve then it would be escalated to the highest level to ensure that the people of Croydon received the standard of service they expected.
As a lack of affordable housing continued to be an issue for many people in the borough, it was questioned whether any thought had been given to developing greenbelt land for housing. In response it was highlighted that the Mayor of London had made clear that he would not countenance allowing development in the greenbelt, so this was not an avenue to pursue. At the moment the Council was working on a number of developments through Brick By Brick that would increase the supply of affordable homes.
It was questioned whether there was any prospect of a university being delivered for the borough. In response it was advised that the Council was open to having discussions with potential providers about the provision of a university and wanted to keep the options for its delivery open.
It was highlighted that there was an issue with people travelling to and from Croydon to South London with a lack of interconnectivity in public transport provision, which was not easily improved as an extension of the tram network was not a priority in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. As such it was questioned what the Council could do to improve provision. It was advised that future public transport provision needed serious consideration if it was going to be able to cope with the planned growth in the borough.
The Chair thanked the Leader and Officers for their attendance at the meeting and answering the Committee’s questions.
Following the discussion of this item, the Committee reached the following conclusions:
1. The Committee were concerned about the lack of clarity on the start of the Westfield redevelopment and felt that further information was needed to provide reassurance.
2. The Committee agreed that the relevant partners in the Westfield project would be invited to a future Scrutiny & Overview Committee meeting to provide an update on the project.