London elections 2022: Labour on the backfoot over budget blackhole in Croydon

·4-min read
Labour candidate Val Shawcross speaks to local resident Kathleen Harballou (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Labour candidate Val Shawcross speaks to local resident Kathleen Harballou (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Croydon town centre is a mess, the council needs to sort it out, says Kathleen Harballou.

“There is so much crime. The children’s centres have all closed down.”

The mother-of-three has lived in Croydon for 12 years and is unsure who will get her vote in the local elections.

Previously she has supported Labour, but in recent years she has seen services decline while council tax has increased and stories about alleged financial mismanagement at the heart of the town hall dominate the local press.

“You hear all this stuff about what happened with the council. Maybe I’ll vote independent or the Lib Dems are a bit different.

“My family are Labour. I can’t vote Conservative.

“The cost of everything is going up. But with what’s gone on in the town hall, I can’t vote for that either.”

Read more: Follow the Standard’s coverage of the 2022 local elections (ES)
Read more: Follow the Standard’s coverage of the 2022 local elections (ES)

The dilemma is one that appears to be facing a number of Croydon voters, who will be electing a mayor for the first time on May 5.

Elected mayors hold more power than council leaders because they can approve plans alone without support. It means whichever party wins the mayoral race will effectively run the council.

Croydon has always flipped between Conservative and Labour control, but has been held by the latter since 2014.

Labour insiders told the Standard that the borough is “probably” the council they are “most worried” about losing. In the years the party has ruled it has been plunged into financial crisis.

Labour’s Val Shawcross canvassing on the streets of Croydon. (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Labour’s Val Shawcross canvassing on the streets of Croydon. (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

After a number of reckless property deals, coupled with the pandemic, the town hall was forced to effectively declare bankruptcy in 2020.

What followed was a social housing scandal with the appalling conditions at a council-owned block in Regina Road prompting the Government to brand the flats unacceptable.

Then in February the Met confirmed it was looking into reports that the local authority had mishandled millions of pounds linked to the refurbishment of arts venue Fairfield Halls.

A report by Croydon’s own auditors found that “serious financial control and legal failings” led to the project going almost £30 million over budget.

Val Shawcross is running as Labour’s mayoral candidate. She was leader of Croydon council from 1997 until 2000 before becoming a deputy mayor of London in City Hall.

Trust in the party to rebuild the borough’s finances is limited among some residents, she admits.

Croydon shop manager Hijrat Salem (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Croydon shop manager Hijrat Salem (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

“It’s often brought up on the doorstep,” she said. “It’s because some of the services have been poorly managed.

“That’s true for the council tenants. But I’m here to reset it. They want reassurance they are going to get a competent Labour council.

“I understand how the mayoral system works and I have a vision for the borough.”

Mrs Shawcross was elected as a Croydon councillor in 1994 — the same year as her Tory opponent Jason Perry.

The Tories had been confident they could take the council, but recently anger at national scandals, along with the cost of living crisis, has cut through. Partygate has sparked particular fury.

Marjorie Morrison, 86, will be voting Labour.

She said: “It broke my heart when people couldn’t see their new grandchildren except through a window. It shows the Conservatives don’t care about ordinary people.”

The Croydon Tories will be listed on the ballot paper as “Local Conservatives” in what has been branded an attempt to distance themselves from the woes of the national party.

“The national party, what’s going on comes up a bit,” said Mr Perry.

“But the main issue on the doorstep is bankruptcy, dirty streets, the graffiti, crime.”

Crime is a particular concern among residents. Last year was the worst on record for teenage murders in London and Croydon had five — more than any other borough.

Hijrat Salem, 45, manages a shop opposite East Croydon station near the Whitgift Centre.

He said: “In the last year we have had to close five or six times because of things happening.

“A murder, a stabbing, a car flipped over. I don’t know who is best or worst. But whoever wins needs to sort out crime.”

Last year a £1.4 billion scheme to replace the Whitgift with a huge new Westfield shopping mall was scrapped after a decade of planning.

Work on the project was due to have started in 2018, but planning permission expired leaving Croydon with dozens of empty shops that some residents say attract anti-social behaviour.

Dave Smith, 62, said he blames the council for the project’s failure and will be voting Conservative.

"Obviously I don’t agree with those parties [in Downing Street]," he said. "But what Labour has done to Croydon is criminal.

"What happened to Westfield? There is so much crime in the town centre.

“We need someone in the town hall who will sort things out. Whatever is going on nationally doesn’t matter. This is about local issues and Labour had their chance."

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