Following the Conservative Group’s requisition of an Extraordinary Council Meeting to debate the increasingly troubled town centre redevelopment, we are appalled to have had this request turned down on the grounds that ‘any debate…… would risk disclosing commercially sensitive matters’, writes Cllr Tim Pollard, Conservative Group Leader.
Council officers have told us that 'the request pertains to matters that relate directly to the Council’s relationship with Croydon Limited Partnership’ and that they have therefore sought external legal advice as to whether any debate should be allowed - and concluded that it should not. This seems to suggest that no debate in any format should be allowed on the blight currently afflicting our town centre, which is of the greatest possible interest to the borough’s residents.
Officers say that 'the Council owes a contractual duty of confidentiality to CLP’, but I have put it to them that this must equally apply to the terms of contracts we have with numerous partners including Veolia, the One Croydon Alliance and others.
The essence of the lawyers’ argument is that ‘any debate…… would risk disclosing commercially sensitive matters’, but following that logic through to its conclusion, almost any debate on any subject might run that risk, if the administration speakers were inept enough. Therefore, presumably, we should debate nothing ‘just in case’ and probably no cabinet member should have to answer any questions either, as they are far more likely to get it wrong when not formally prepared for a topic!
As a former cabinet member myself, I know that many debates have been held where I had some limited commercially confidential knowledge which I was required, in my position, to not disclose. Any half-way competent councillor should be able to speak for three minutes to a prepared script without inadvertently blurting out something they shouldn’t – but not, it seems, Newman’s cabinet chums.
External legal advisers exist to be risk-averse in their guidance and I am sure that council officers are accurately relaying their advice. But as a body, Croydon Council has a choice as to whether or not to follow that advice. The Council has more than one duty - it also has a duty to the citizens of the borough, who elect the councillors that lead it, to be as straightforward as possible about the real status of the developments being done in their name. The council’s response to this ECM requisition makes it clear that it places the small (and manageable) risk of any breach in its duty of confidentiality to CLP above its duty of openness to its citizens, which I find very troubling.
I am deeply concerned that a legitimate matter of concern to the public can be made undiscussable indefinitely in its entirety and have asked by what act of parliament or provision of the constitution this is allowed?
I would strongly argue that the Council is failing in its duty to its citizens by suppressing debate on this matter and the debate should go ahead, with (if absolutely necessary) administration speakers briefed to understand what areas they may not speak on. I believe the existing motion could be debated perfectly safely within our normal rules of debate.
However, in a spirit of helpfulness, and to avoid the possibility of an over-excited Labour speaker being unable to avoid accidentally revealing something they shouldn’t, I have told officers that we could accept that paras 2 and 4 should be deleted from the motion, so that it reads:
In light of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (“Westfield”) reporting that it has removed the proposed redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre from its development project portfolio, the following Members of the Council greatly regret the current Administration’s incompetence in losing this opportunity to regenerate Croydon’s Town Centre.
The town centre is now suffering from considerable blight and a much reduced retail and leisure offer. It is vital that there is a plan in terms of meanwhile use and to encourage the return of a vibrant town centre of which all Croydon residents can be proud. It is time that the Administration shared with the public what this plan is.
Instead of a debate I have been offered a ‘confidential briefing’. I have thanked officers for this offer but it rather misses the point. The point is not that I need to be informed, but that the public does. I am not prepared to be a party to the withholding of information about the biggest single issue facing the town, so at this stage I have indicated that I do not feel the need of a special briefing and can, in any case, question senior officers on this matter as part of my ongoing one-to-ones with them.
I will post again as this story develops.
As of late Monday afternoon it has been decided that Labour members can apparently speak for a total of eleven minutes without planting their size nines in it, so the debate is back on and will be held after the budget meeting of council on monday 2nd March. We don't know what propmted this change of heart, we can but hope that Cllr Newman simply realised his position on this was untenable and changed it. Either way the fact that this important issue wil be discussed is to be welcomed.