Val Shawcross, a leading contender to be Croydon’s first directly elected Mayor, recently produced a campaign video which prompted sharp responses.
Speaking to camera against the backdrop of a pretty inoffensive three-storey housing block in Coulsdon, a small town in the far south of the borough close to the Greater London boundary, Shawcross said that, according to local people, the building “typifies everything that’s gone wrong with planning in Croydon in recent years”.
The block “looks out of place here,” Shawcross said. “It’s too big, the wrong sort of design and colour. It really sticks out like a sore thumb in this attractive suburban area”.
Shawcross is Labour’s mayoral candidate. Yet to some her words could easily have been spoken by a Conservative. Architect Russell Curtis, who argues for more house building on small sites in the capital and parts of its golf courses, paraphrased Animal Farm:
“The creatures outside looked from from Labour to Tory and from Tory to Labour and from Labour to Tory again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Chris Worrall, a Labour council candidate in Tower Hamlets, a Labour Housing Group executive and co-editor of Red Brick Blog, remarked: “Val, the Tory party and the Fib Dems want their NIMBY political opportunism back”. And Priced Out’s Anya Martin said: “Not all of us can afford 4-bed family homes. We need smaller flats or we end up having to share with strangers. Build more of both.”
What has caused Shawcross, a strong trade unionist, Sadiq Khan’s former deputy mayor for transport and Croydon Council’s leader from 1997 to 2000, to say things about housing and planning that sound exactly like things her Conservative rival for the Croydon mayoralty, Jason Perry, and countless other outer London Tories say?
The prime suspect must be electoral fear. Although Labour has grown stronger in Croydon of late, its recent financial troubles have given Tories confidence and the push for Croydon to adopt the directly elected mayor model – decided in a referendum held in October – came substantially from people in the south of the borough who were unhappy with more and different housing appearing in their neighbourhoods.
Campaigners for a DEM expected to get a Labour Mayor but hoped the new electoral system would create an incentive for a candidate to seek support from right cross the borough, rather than concentrating campaign energies and promises on getting out the vote in winnable wards, which in Labour’s case are primarily in the more inner city-flavoured north.
It seemed that this need not be so. Wouldn’t it still make sense for a Labour mayoral candidate to maximise core support rather than spread resources thinner for smaller returns in the suburban Tory south? But perhaps some combination of a need to demonstrate her distance from the Labour Town Hall administration linked with big financial troubles together with a wish to neutralise the possibly greater motivation of the Tory base in the south has prompted Shawcross to sound like the chair of a Cotswold village preservation society.
Whatever her reasons she has positioned herself to please that familiar anti-development alliance between conservationists concerned with repelling any perceived threat to “local character” and Corbynite leftists pledged to repel “the developers” in any shape or form, such as the misanthropic Croydon website whose idea of heroic London local government leadership is – and this may be hard to believe – that of the late Ted Knight in Lambeth in the 1980s.
It is not easy to frame planning and housing policies that find the right combination between leaving well alone and boosting housing supply, especially of the types that best meet need and demand. There are good arguments for maintaining the design integrity of such as Croydon’s Whitgift estate, just as there are for encouraging building on under-utilised spaces in every corner of Croydon, which has a London Plan housing completions target of over 20,790 by 2028/29 and a council house waiting list of nearly 5,000.
There is also no denying that politicians – perhaps particularly Labour ones – need and often should make compromises with their electorates in order win their trust and their votes. But Croydon and its residents are no more immune to the capital’s housing supply and affordability problems than anywhere else. If Val Shawcross becomes the borough’s Mayor on 5 May, what will she provide in terms of housing policies that are any different from those of Croydon’s Tories?
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