Tony Newman’s announcement yesterday that he intends to step down as leader of Croydon Council after six years in the job has come at a critical time in the Outer London borough’s history, with the Town Hall seeking a deal with the government to allow it greater freedom to bridge its gaping budget gap, and a credible campaign to change the council’s governance model to a directly-elected mayoral system looking likely to lead to a referendum on the issue within the next 18 months.
It follows the departure of chief executive Jo Negrini at the end of August and the resignation for “personal reasons” late last week of cabinet member for finance Simon Hall. Unsurprisingly, the situation in Croydon is being termed a crisis, with critics blaming Newman for creating it then bailing out of a sinking ship, or being forced out, or both.
Speaking to On London, Newman does not downplay the council’s financial troubles – far from it – but characterises the timing of his decision as his own and as judicious in terms of addressing them.
He stresses the vital importance of securing a capitalisation direction from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), saying “it gives us a chance of securing the council’s finances on some sort of footing” and avoiding “cuts that are unimaginable”, although he warns that “some very severe budget pressures will remain, even if it goes well.”
Contrary to rumours and reports elsewhere, Newman says “there was no pressure” from the Labour Party or from MHCLG for him move aside. Rather, he describes concluding that with negotiations approaching their nitty gritty stage and relations with civil servants “dramatically improved” by the recent appointment of the experienced Katherine Kerswell as interim chief executive, it made sense to step down now, rather than next year as he says he had planned to, making way for someone else to take Labour through this difficult period and into the 2022 elections. Newman emphasises that he has led his party through the last four.
“I genuinely reached the view that a new leader with a new perspective would give us a great chance with MHCLG,” he says. He paid tribute to Hall for his cabinet service, said his colleague’s departure didn’t take him by surprise and that, while not influencing his own decision directly, “probably paid a part”, in cementing his belief that this is the moment for a new leadership team.
Another factor was the destruction of hopes of “bringing the Tories on board in terms of a cross-party perspective,” he says. Newman has lately survived a no-confidence motion from the opposition group, which has just acquired a new leader. He reasons that the possibility of a string of such moves would not be ideal with everything else going on, especially as “eventually you might lose one”.
Soon, MHCLG officials will want to see full details of Croydon’s financial strategy for the next three years as they assess the borough’s case. Looking ahead to next year’s council budget, Newman, echoing a grievance held by local authorities across England, states that the borough is “currently underfunded to the tune of £42 million” in terms of “money Robert Jenrick promised that we didn’t receive”.
Newman will not be waiting around before leaving the job: he has already resigned as leader of the Labour Group and his successor as council leader will be elected soon, once formal protocols have been followed and schedules made. He says he’s been “overwhelmed by support from Labour at all levels” since last night, when he told a full council meeting he would be going. Along with inaccurate social media claims that he is leaving the council “bankrupt” there have been tributes from Labour allies, included Redbridge leader Jas Athwal and Croydon North MP Steve Reed.
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