Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 23rd June 2021

This Saturday is Armed Forces Day, the annual day for recognising the contributions of those serving in the British Armed Forces. While the celebration is now in its fifteenth year, for the second year in a row the pandemic means the day will be marked in a more muted way than the usual annual fanfare.

Crawley has a strong association with the Armed Forces, with many of our young people choosing to spend time serving in one branch or another and the town enthusiastically showing its support in turn.

We were an early adopter of the Armed Forces Covenant, setting out how Crawley would work to support serving members of the forces, veterans and their families. We implemented the Veterans Interview Scheme to ensure those who had served would have the chance to show at an interview what they could bring to a council job, as it might not be apparent from their CV.

We also remember those we have lost, as proven by the large community participation at every Remembrance Day event, and in recent years a number of new roads and buildings have been named after the town’s sons and daughters who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Yet, while we are constantly seeking as a town for ways to show our support, as a country we must do much better. The House of Commons is currently debating the Armed Forces Bill, which not only fails to deliver on the Government’s past commitments made to Armed Forces personnel, but cuts existing support for veterans. Frankly, it’s a national disgrace.

We need to bring the Armed Forces Covenant fully into law and build a comprehensive national plan for improving support for veterans to stop former servicemen and women from falling through the gaps when it comes to areas like employment, affordable housing and healthcare.

This week the Labour Party have launched a survey for veterans to give them a say in how we redesign our systems to truly recognise the contributions of those who have served. I would encourage all Crawley veterans to make their voices heard by going to: labour.org.uk/veterans

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 9th June 2021

Throughout the pandemic, whenever mistakes have been uncovered we’ve been told that the Government has never had to deal with anything like this before, so we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

For the UK, it is true that we haven’t had to deal with a pandemic like this in a century. Where this argument collapses is that we aren’t alone in going through COVID-19, in fact we were one of the last major economies to contract the disease. Yet, despite all the opportunities to learn from the actions of other Governments and the strong advantage we had as an island to minimise the spread of the pandemic, when you compare our Government’s performance to that of others their record has been abysmal.

So, why bring this up now? Because the UK is about to make a huge mistake again. Last week the Government’s own Education Recovery Tsar Sir Kevan Collins resigned after it was revealed that the amount the Government was prepared to spend on educational recovery was one tenth of what he had identified. Again, the Government is letting Britain fall behind.

We are not only letting our children down, this affects all of us. Education is the bedrock of future economic performance, a stronger economy delivers greater opportunities for everyone and greater tax revenue, enabling better public services and paying down the debt the country has accrued through COVID-19.

The word ‘invest’ is often thrown around in politics to describe expenditure, but education spending is a genuine investment in that it pays back far more than what the country spends on it. To fall behind other major economies in this investment now is to yet again force Britain to compete with one hand tied behind its back.

Children in Crawley deserve better. We already have the lowest social mobility in the South East and COVID-19 has greatly reduced the strength of our local jobs market. We need to take our children’s future seriously and that’s why I’m pleased that Labour has put forward an alternative Children’s Recovery Plan which would genuinely deliver for Crawley’s children.

New time lapse video marks Town Hall milestone

A time lapse video of the new Town Hall has been released by Crawley Borough Council, condensing 10 months of construction into just 100 seconds.

The video, which can be viewed at investcrawley.co.uk/development/town-hall, shows the empty site transformed into a striking nine-storey building. Crawley Borough Council will occupy the bottom 3.5 floors and rent out commercial space on the upper floors.

The name of the commercial space will be The Create Building. The available floor space is between 14,000 sq ft and 77,000 sq ft and Crawley-based SHW are marketing this on behalf of the council. For more information visit shw.co.uk/crawley

The landmark building, which is expected to be ready for occupation in February 2022, is part of a wider regeneration scheme at the eastern end of The Boulevard in Crawley town centre.

The scheme also includes 273 flats (of which 109 will be affordable), a new public square, public realm improvements, ground floor commercial space for a restaurant/café and district energy centre. It is a joint development between Crawley Borough Council and Westrock.

The entire redevelopment is transforming a major town centre opportunity site. The new Town Hall will:

  • Secure the council’s finances through the ability to generate new revenue from commercial office tenants whilst achieving significant savings on the council’s current running costs
  • Provide a better, fit-for-purpose building for customers, staff and councillors
  • Contribute to achieving the council’s wider ambitions around affordable housing, post-Covid economic recovery, and tackling climate change.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “We are facing enormous challenges as a town: Financial, as we are forced to keep doing more with less. Social, as we struggle with a housing crisis decades in the making. Environmental, as we need to move quickly to zero-carbon to avoid climate catastrophe. The redevelopment of the town hall site is a vital part of Crawley’s efforts to meet all three challenges.”

For more information visit investcrawley.co.uk/town-hall

Deal reached over the running of Crawley Borough Council

After several weeks of negotiations, the Labour Group and the council’s Independent member—Cllr Rory Fiveash, have announced that they have agreed a deal over the running of Crawley Borough Council for the coming council year.

Following the local elections, no party was left with overall control of Crawley Borough Council, with the council consisting of 18 Conservatives, 17 Labour and one Independent councillor.

With a Labour councillor holding the casting vote at tonight’s Annual Council meeting, the deal means that for the coming year there will be a Labour-Independent coalition of 18 councillors, able to use a casting vote to provide stable leadership for the next 12 months.

While all groups of councillors have engaged in discussions over recent weeks, from the start it was clear that the shared beliefs and values of Cllr Fiveash and the council’s Labour members provided the strongest basis upon which to address the problems currently facing the town.

As part of the coalition deal, the council will be mothballing rather than closing the Millpond and Creasys Drive adventure playgrounds and seeking new delivery models for the sites, in addition to providing a 12-month extension to the Government’s eviction ban in relation to council properties. Cllr Fiveash will also be taking the role of Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Resources in the administration.

Cllr Lamb said:

‘Crawley faces enormous challenges over the year ahead, as we seek to rebuild from the pandemic. Cllr Fiveash’s decision to work with us gives the council the stability we need to tackle these challenges head on and I look forward to working closely with Rory again.’

Cllr Fiveash said:

‘I am pleased that we have reached an agreement to work together and, with our shared values and principles, I believe that we can offer a bright and secure future for the people of Crawley as our town recovers from the pandemic.’

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 26th May 2021

Three weeks on from the local elections, the result will finally be decided at the Annual Council this Friday.

After two years without an election, when voters went to the polls they delivered a hung council in which there are 18 Conservative, 17 Labour and 1 Independent councillor who was elected as Labour in a seat which strongly voted Labour this year. This means that council control will be determined by a No Confidence vote on Friday in which the Labour Deputy Mayor, following the resignation of the Mayor, has the casting vote. With everything so finely balanced, one person and one person alone will decide who runs Crawley this Friday: the council’s Independent member.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the council will be balanced precariously for the next year, with an opposition having the casting vote on most of the council’s committees and with a single absence at a Full Council meeting potentially seeing council control flipping back and forth.

Even during normal times this would be a cause for concern, but these are not normal times. The world hasn’t yet defeated COVID-19, never mind the challenges which follow in its wake. Crawley’s economy has been hit harder than any other in the country by the Government’s Coronavirus restrictions, yet most of the effects still haven’t been felt and won’t be until the current job projections finally come to an end. When they do we will certainly feel the impact as a town.

With the ban on evictions ending in a week’s time, the tidal wave of private sector evictions we are likely to face of people no longer able to afford their rent will also make itself known. The risk for new public service cuts is also likely, as the sector faces the fact that a decade of austerity has destroyed the financial security of the whole sector.

Getting through these challenges and more, means all those on the council doing what they often claim in leaflets: putting Crawley first, and doing everything we can to get the town through the biggest challenges it has ever faced.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 19th May 2021

The UK’s housing crisis didn’t start with the pandemic. Its roots can be found in the 1984 Housing Act, Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to end the role of local government in providing affordable housing, and it will take decades of effort by committed councils to make good this historic mistake.

However, COVID-19 has certainly made the problem worse. During the first lockdown there were two main housing-related pressures. The first was the need to get rough sleepers into socially distanced accommodation to limit the spread of the virus, before transitioning them into permanent housing. While not everyone took up this effort or found maintaining a tenancy sustainable, the effort was largely successful, although incurring a far higher cost than the Government’s funding covered.

The second pressure was how to keep people housed when the lockdown would inevitably result in a loss of household income. The Government’s solution was a mortgage holiday and a ban on evictions, that way people would be less likely to take risks around employment and they would have somewhere to self-isolate until the danger had passed.

From the start, this was a much better deal for home owners, who were able to push payments back at no cost to themselves, while renters would continue to incur rent over the whole period. These days, rents tend to be much higher than mortgage payments, which coupled with renters being more likely to occupy lower paid and more insecure work means that there will be a tidal wave of evictions when the Government’s ban ceases at the end of this month.

Crawley’s economy has been hit harder than any other in the country, but migration from London makes it unlikely that rents will fall in-line with rising unemployment, so we are going to see the impact of this tidal wave more than most.

We can’t control the private rented sector, although considerable improvement is needed, but we can set an example for them. That is why I am happy to announce that under Labour, the council will extend the ban on evictions a further year beyond the Government’s current deadline.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 12th May 2021

A heartfelt thank you to all those who voted last Thursday. While the results weren’t what I was hoping for, Labour in Crawley suffered the net loss of just a single seat to Conservatives compared to the scores lost in other town of our type. However, that loss puts the town in a difficult position.

Two years ago, the Local Government Boundary Commission revised the Crawley Borough Council ward boundaries, reducing the number of seats from 37 to 36. A number of us warned the commission at the time that having an even number of seats was a recipe for trouble, given Crawley’s history of close results and tendency to only elect two parties, and that it was just a matter of time until we ended up with a divided council.

After Thursday, the council has 18 Conservative, 17 Labour and one Independent former Labour councillor, meaning we are effectively in deadlock for the next year. Crawley’s economy has been hit harder by COVID restrictions than any other, we have a Government agency seeking to build 10,000 houses on our Western boarder, and the pandemic continues to cause major financial problems for the council. The risk now is that rather than addressing these issues, the council spends 12 months unable to take any major decisions.

I don’t believe that anyone wants that for Crawley, I certainly don’t, which is why it’s important some deal is reached between the groups on the council. For the last year Labour and the Conservatives have had a deal, but as Labour hold the casting vote on who the next Mayor will be and consequently who will wield the casting vote for the next year, a Labour-Independent deal would work, as I’m sure a Conservative-Independent deal would also.

Conversations have been taking place around what such deals might look like for the last week and are likely to continue for the next week, with an ultimate cut-off being the deadline for publishing the Annual Council papers on 20th May. Whatever the outcome, Labour councillors will work to deliver the commitments upon which we were elected.

Thank you…but what happens now?

A huge thanks to everyone who took the time to vote in this year’s local elections. The elections saw a 36% turnout, an improvement on the previous local elections despite the pandemic, with record numbers of postal voters.

These were a huge bumper set of elections, with Crawley holding elections for Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner election, every West Sussex County Council seat, a third of Crawley Borough Council seats and an additional two Crawley Borough Council by-elections.

The results for Crawley Labour were clearly disappointing. The reality is that most Labour campaigns focus on heavy community engagement and while we did everything we could to safely speak with voters this time around, we simply couldn’t run the type of campaign which typically delivers wins for Labour.

While we have to wait until Monday to find out who won the Police and Crime Commissioner Election, we already know that in Crawley Labour has seen a net loss of one seat on West Sussex County Council and another net loss of one on Crawley Borough Council since the last set of elections. Considering what has happened to Labour nationally, and particularly in other New Towns, we were expecting to do much worse, but we can’t pretend that this is the result we wanted.

For Crawley, this means the borough council remains in No Overall Control, with the Conservatives having 18 seats, Labour having 17, and 1 Independent (former Labour) councillor. So, what happens next?

Crawley Borough Council operates the ‘Strong Leader Model’ under which day-to-day decisions are delegated to the Council Leader and the Cabinet they appoint, with the Full Council responsible for the big strategic decisions. We elect the Council Leader for a four year term and my current term is due to end in May 2022, but realistically a Leader who cannot deliver a majority on key votes in the chamber will either resign or face a confidence vote in which the council replaces them. The first opportunity for this to happen is the Annual Council meeting, this year the meeting is scheduled for the 28th May, at which point committee and civic appointments for the coming year will be made, most importantly the Mayor.

While the Mayor of Crawley is a largely symbolic position, they are responsible for chairing meetings of the Full Council, as part of which they are granted a casting vote whenever there is a draw. Given the current 18-17-1 split on the council, this appointment has become incredibly important politically and due to the resignation of the last Mayor, the casting vote for this appointment will be made by the current Deputy Mayor, who is currently a Labour councillor.

So, what comes next? While it is possible for us to just wait until the Annual Council and see what happens, everyone seems to want to find a way to ensure stability for the forthcoming year and that means finding some sort of agreement between at least two of the three blocks of councillors. These conversations are happening now, to try to find a reasonable compromise which will ensure the council can deal with the substantial problems facing the council and our community.

I believe that a compromise which will deliver stability for the next year will be reached before the Annual Council, but at this stage I really don’t know what it will look like and ultimately it won’t be down to me to decide. However, based on conversations so far, it’s clear that everyone really wants to ensure an arrangement which will deliver the best for the town over the next year.