By Tara O’Connor, Local Democracy Reporter
Labour’s candidate for Croydon’s mayoral election said she is “embarrassed” by the council’s bankruptcy.
In May, the borough will choose its first directly-elected mayor at the 2022 local elections, changing the way the authority is governed.
In the running for the new position is Val Shawcross, a former councillor and leader of Croydon council in the 1990s.
The 63-year-old retired from political life in 2018 and was chairwoman of the Crystal Palace Park Trust during the referendum on its future.
Speaking from her campaign office in the iconic Number One Croydon building, also known as the 50p building, she said: “I thought actually ‘I can help with this, this is my borough’.
“I could see that my local party was struggling with it, they were campaigning against the elected mayor and I voted against that.
“It’s been clear that Croydon had been badly led, it needed a shake-up, this was a system that is going to make a difference.”
On the doorstep, Ms Shawcross said she had met many people who were upset about what has happened in Croydon.
In November 2020 the council was forced to issue a Section 114 notice, declaring effective bankruptcy as it could not balance its budget.
Since then there have been cuts to services, including libraries, and shocking conditions exposed in council-owned housing.
Ms Shawcross said: “There are some doors, particularly where there have been Labour voters, who are really upset about the state of the town and what’s happened to the council. I absolutely share their pain, and I’m embarrassed about it.
“I am going to make a difference if I get in, I’ve been inside enough organisations to know how to make it successful.
“I think people get the fact that I’m coming in as an outside insider as it were. Coming back to what was my first political job I can make a difference.”
Ms Shawcross, who lives in Crown Point with her husband, Mick, first entered politics as a councillor for New Addington in 1994.
She was Croydon council’s leader in 1997 for three years before she became a London Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark for 16 years, and was deputy mayor of London for Transport under Sadiq Khan.
Ms Shawcross said she wanted to “do away with a growing north versus south divide” in the borough.
She added: “One of the themes of my campaign is one Croydon together, these are artificial administrative boundaries”.
On the matter of Purley Pool, which closed at the start of the pandemic never to reopen, she is clear, she thinks the whole thing needs to be rebuilt.
This differs from her main opposition, Jason Perry, the Conservative candidate, who said he will refurbish and reopen the existing pool.
The candidate said she thinks the council-owned development company Brick by Brick was a good idea, but “clearly badly managed”.
And the candidate said she generally wanted to see less focus on building flats in the borough.
She said: “There is too much focus on providing flats, which doesn’t create a settled community.
“It is quite transient in the town centre. I think the balance of interest should be getting houses where people have a little garden and definitely more affordable homes, not shared ownership but socially rented.”
She said she wanted to “take the pressure off intensification” in the Croydon plan.
She said: “There is a lot of bad feeling about this, people feel the council will try and squeeze a block of flats into any space. I think it is OK for a suburb to be a suburb.”
On the town centre, and stalled redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre by shopping centre giant Westfield, Ms Shawcross said she wanted more support for existing traders.
She said: “The Westfield project overstayed its welcome. Retail can no longer fund a project like that. It is up to the developer to come with a new plan.
“We need a mixed use project. It needs to be a mix between offices, homes, leisure, culture, arts, retail and entertainment. These big malls are very inflexible. We need to go back to something that’s more like streets.”
And she said the town centre needed “short-term revitalisation” while a long-term plan is put together.
She said: “Shop owners need longer leases so they can function well. We need activation in the town centre.”
The Labour candidate was keen not to be linked to the Labour council administration that brought Croydon to bankruptcy.
She said: “I wasn’t in the council. I wasn’t part of any sector that was involved in the council. A lot of local Labour party members were shocked and had no idea when the Section 114 happened.
“A lot of backbench councillors felt disempowered. I want to make sure that the people have a genuine say.”
Pictured top: Croydon council’s offices