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Spin-derella! How Croydon Council turned its playing fields policy into a pantomime

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CROYDON politics is often compared to a Punch & Judy show but for the last few weeks, it has been more like a panto, with a cabinet member saying the council was thinking of building on school playing fields only for his boss to respond: "Oh no we aren't."

Spinderella began last month when the council published a report saying some fields were "excessive" and could be used for housing or extra classrooms. Simon Hall, cabinet member for finance and panto star, backed the idea, saying all school sites would be reviewed.

The production then played two nights at the town hall, starting on November 17 when council leader Tony Newman and his cabinet – including Cllr Hall – declared they had no intention of doing it, only to vote through the report without amendment.

The confusion led to boos and hisses from the audience, led by Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, who set up a petition calling for the show to be cancelled.

Yet on it rumbled until a return to the town hall on Monday produced another plot twist. This time, the Conservatives put forward a motion calling for Labour to reword the report to prove they had no intention of concreting over green space.

Up shot the hands of the cast of Spinderella and the motion was unanimously rejected, only for one of the protagonists – a cabinet member – to tell a member of the public minutes later they would, in fact, amend the document.

A Labour source described the report as a "big cock-up" and claimed the bit about school playing fields had been mistakenly included by a council officer.

"What we wouldn't do is make it appear we were doing a U-turn," the source said. "The reality is, it was never going to happen. There are loads of us on this cabinet who would never allow things to be built on our playing fields."

Two days after the council meeting, a note appeared on its website saying Cllr Newman had amended the Asset Strategy, using his executive powers, "to clarify the wording".

Cllr Newman deleted the entire paragraph which mentions "excessive" playing fields but he left in a reference to reviewing "school sites" in order to meet "pressures" including the need for housing and school places.

Tim Pollard, opposition leaderr of the opposition, heckled him for being "either duplicitous or incompetent" and called on Labour to reword the report again, this time with a specific line committing the council to protecting school fields.

Cllr Newman rejected suggestion that changing the document in secret called into question his commitment to making the council as transparent as Cinderella's slipper. He said he had done so to avoid "another two weeks of scaremongering" before renewing his social media campaign to deflect attention away from a shambolic few weeks for Labour.

Mr Barwell failed to get the message and described the affair as a "clear U-turn". He added: "In line with the incompetence of

this story, they haven't done the amendments properly, and there is still a line in the report that does imply housing development. They should take that out as well.

"As it stands, it's a very good thing for politics that, after thousands of people signed a petition, the council has changed its position."

Edward Handley, chairman of Croydon Playing Fields Association, who was "horrified" by the building plan, described his "relief" at the decision but added: "We need to be vigilant because it could rear its head again."

Cllr Hall, who faced calls from the Conservatives to resign, did not respond to the Advertiser's calls this week. He has yet to explain his change of heart.

He and his party will hope the only panto in Croydon from now until Christmas will be the one starring Gareth Gates at Fairfield Halls.

TIMELINE OF SPIN:

NOVEMBER 11: The council publishes a report, Asset Strategy: A New Approach, ahead of the following week's cabinet meeting. It contains a review of the authority's school 'estate' which states there are schools in Croydon which have "very large" playing fields which might be considered "excessive" and could be used to build houses on.

NOVEMBER 14: The Advertiser publishes a story about the report, including an interview with Simon Hall, the politician behind the plan, who says all school sites will be reviewed to find "surplus" land. Croydon Playing Fields Association and the Conservative opposition criticise the idea.

NOVEMBER 17: Despite the report and Cllr Hall's comments, the Labour cabinet denies it has any intention to build on school playing fields. It then approves the strategy without making any amendments. Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell starts petition against the plan which eventually attracts more than 1,000 signatures.

NOVEMBER 22: Former England cricketer and Croydon schoolboy Mark Butcher says the council should forget about building on school playing fields. Butcher said there was "no justification" for doing so and that development on "surplus" land would set a dangerous precedent for the future.

DECEMBER 1: The Labour group rejects a Conservative motion calling on them to amend the strategy. Cllr Hall accuses Advertiser of "sensationalising". A cabinet member later tells a member of the public they will, in fact, change the wording.

DECEMBER 2: After the Advertiser publishes transcript of the original interview, the Conservative group call on Cllr Hall to resign. A Labour source admits the report will be changed and tells Advertiser building housing on playing fields was included in the document due to a "mistake" by a council officer.

DECEMBER 2: Council leader Tony Newman himself amends the Asset Strategy, deleting the reference to building homes on playing fields

Spin-derella! How Croydon Council turned its playing fields policy into a pantomime


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