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Pothole politics: A Tory councillor on Croydon in crisis

The south London borough changed hands at the local elections. A councillor tells Spotlight about the challenges ahead.

By Samir Jeraj

This month, UK voters went to the polls to elect councillors to local governments in England, Scotland and Wales (and regional government in Northern Ireland). While the media gaze often fixates on Westminster and the significance of the elections for the major parties nationally, much of the most important public services and decisions are made by councillors. Following the elections, Spotlight approached four councillors – some new, some veterans – to hear what they think are the key policy challenges ahead in their area.

First in the series is Conservative councillor Jeet Bains from Croydon, where local issues played a key role in the recent election. The Conservatives bucked the trend in the south London borough to win the new directly elected mayor position. Bains told Spotlight via email about local priorities and what the election results say about national politics. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into local politics?

I am a management consultant, advising organisations on change and transformation. I have always been drawn to politics and got involved with my local Conservative Party in Croydon. I got selected as a candidate and won elections in 2010, 2014, 2018 and just a week ago in 2022. I’ve also stood for parliament, in 2019.

Why does local government matter?

Local government is often overlooked by the public but it is where much of their day-to-day life is affected. Bin collections, potholes, libraries, swimming pools – these are things you expect to just be taken care of, but you quickly notice when they aren’t. In Croydon, the Labour council went bankrupt and this caused huge issues in the borough. They also had a planning policy that saw areas brought to ruin with unsuitable developments, completely ignoring local residents. This caused a visceral reaction from the electorate. It was a textbook case of why local government matters to the general public.

What are the biggest challenges facing local government?

All councils feel financial pressure, so it’s vital that you have sound management of budgets. It’s also crucial that local government listens to people. Example: in Croydon, we had several cases of houses being converted into flats. Invariably, residents were not happy about this. In many cases, we had hundreds of objections but they were entirely ignored. Residents often said they didn’t mind new developments as long as these were in keeping with the character of the area and of a reasonable number. But they were virtually always ignored.

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What are the biggest challenges facing your constituents?

There’s an old adage that people only notice when things go wrong. So a big challenge for constituents is to ensure that they get well-run services from the council. Sadly, in Croydon, because of the bankruptcy, the Labour council stopped cutting grass, got rid of the graffiti removal team, and there were even investigations into potential fraud. So constituents will need to hold their elected representatives to account and make sure they deliver the services they expect.

What is your most urgent policy priority?

In Croydon, as well as getting the finances in order, planning is a huge priority. The previous Labour council pursued an approach called intensification. Any gap between houses would be developed into flats. We will put a stop to that and have development that provides good-quality homes that people want to live in, that contributes to the character of the area and has supporting infrastructure such as schools and GP surgeries.

Are you happy with the Conservative Party’s performance in the local elections in your area and across the country?

Yes, the Conservatives won the mayoralty – the first directly elected mayor in Croydon. We also reduced Labour’s councillor count by seven and increased ours by four. That’s no mean feat in a London borough. Across the country there were challenges for sure, and many people chose to send a message to the national party. But for a governing party, mid-term, it wasn’t catastrophic. We will listen and respond.

What do the results say about the state of the parties nationally?

The results tell us that, as always, national politics has an outsized effect on local elections. It’s also clear that trust is always important to the electorate, and that will never change. Local issues will, however, have a very strong influence in local elections.

Read more: Pothole politics: A Labour councillor’s view on winning Herts

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