£1bn property schemes, landowners and proper role of MPs

Coincidence of interests does not rule out the potential for the appearance of conflicts of interest. STEVEN DOWNES asks why Croydon Central’s MP has refused to resign his positions with landowners the Whitgift Foundation

Rejoice! We are a grandmother!

The MP for the Whitgift Foundation: Gary Barlow

The MP for the Whitgift Foundation: Gary Barlow

Well, that wasn’t quite how Gary Barlow, the little recognised MP for Croydon Central, put it yesterday, but it wasn’t far off.

It was just past 6pm on Wednesday evening when Barwell (as he is sometimes known when safely in his suburban home in Sanderstead) posted on his own constituency website a letter sent to him by the local government secretary, Eric Pickles. Addressed personally to “Dear Gavin” (how sweet), the letter delivered the unsurprising news that Barwell and his friends at the Whitgift Foundation had been waiting for.

Barwell tweeted: “Gov’t confirms it will not call in Westfield/Hammerson planning application. #Croydon Council can now proceed with CPO #goodnews

Ah, #goodnews. Well it is according to Barwell who also happens to be a board member of the one of the largest stakeholders in the scheme, the landowners who will be among the biggest financial beneficiaries of the £1 billion development of the Whitgift Centre.

Not for the first time, Barwell conveniently forgot to mention his involvement with the Whitgift Foundation, who own the freehold of the Whitgift Centre, as well as much other property in central Croydon. Nor did he mention that millions of pounds of public money – perhaps as much as £60 million – will be spent on road and tram improvements, for the principle benefit of the landowners and property developers. Nor did he mention that the bills for any CPOs will also be funded by the tax-payer.

CPO? A character from Star Wars? No, something far more frightening than that for residents of Croydon with better than a goldfish memory.

The Compulsory Purchase Order process for the land required for redevelopment began in July, with letters sent to the affected businesses in the Whitgift and Centrale shopping malls. With dozens of businesses involved, bringing them all together to agree to be bought out and displaced by the developers is potentially a long and complicated process.

Where it could get very messy is if any of the businesses decide they want to hold out against the scheme, and the prime contender for that role is Minerva, the leaseholders of the key Allders site, which is now home to the underwhelming Croydon Village Outlet.

The cuckoo in the nest? What is the real purpose of the "Village Outlet" store?

The cuckoo in the nest? What is the real purpose of the “Village Outlet” store?

It did not take much to see through the Crap Village Outlet scheme as a Trojan horse from Minerva to screw as much value – or public cash – out of the CPO process, against the threat of delaying the redevelopment as a whole. Traders and concessions that took floorspace in the Village Outlet were initially offered just six-month contracts – hardly the sort of thing you’d expect from a business looking to the long-term.

Croydon Council has been here before, when it used CPO powers to back the Arrowcroft Croydon Arena scheme, next to East Croydon Station. This led to a public enquiry in 2007 and ultimately a very expensive defeat for the council – ie. Council Tax-payers – against landowners Stanhope Schroders. And whatever happened to that site, now called Ruskin Square? Oh yes, another triumph for Croydon Council’s planning department then…

But publicly funded CPOs is what Croydon Central MP Barwell is now keen to get underway for the Whitgift Centre.

Barwell’s position in all this is increasingly sticky. But then, as he has shown with a range of other minor abuses since being elected in 2010, probity in public office is a long way down his list of priorities.

As the local MP, it is right and proper that he should be campaigning for his constituents, for the development of the area, and for long-term and worthwhile full-time jobs.

But as long as he holds an important position of influence on the managing board of the landowners, the Whitgift Foundation, who stand to make many millions out of the deal and benefit from the use of public money towards the scheme, there is a clear possibility of a conflict of interest.

Barwell maintains that he has excluded himself from all the Foundation’s discussions on the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre. Apart from stretching credulity beyond breaking point, he has never offered any evidence of this. He could – together with borough councillors Dudley and Margaret Mead and Toni Letts – have done the decent thing and resigned from his role with the Whitgift Foundation. But he has never done so, nor explained why not.

Meanwhile, he also continues to boast about his integral role and involvement in securing the Hammersfield scheme, claiming to have spent hundreds of hours working on the plans. None of it, we are meant to believe, done on behalf of the interests of the Whitgift Foundation.

How the people of Bradford see the "development" of their blighted town centre as a result of Westfield's interest in their city

How the people of Bradford see the “development” of their blighted town centre as a result of Westfield’s interest

Barwell has hosted Town Hall meetings and spoken in debates in the council chamber – a role for which the local council leader, florid-faced Mike Fisher, might have been more appropriate, were it not for the fact that his own Croydon Conservative party members have rendered him the deadest of ducks.

Barwell has also argued strongly against the idea that at least 40 per cent of the new homes delivered on the site should be “affordable housing”. Was he doing this because the Whitgift Foundation’s developers need to maximise their profits, or was he doing it for the greater good of the people of Croydon?

Barwell has popped up on local television, proselytising the wonderful redevelopment schemes that are coming to Croydon. Sometimes, he mentions his role on the Whitgift Foundation. More often, he does not.

So is he MP for Croydon Central or MP for the Whitgift Foundation?

“Financially the Foundation needs a successful redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre – which is what the town needs too,” he tweeted last night, seemingly arguing that a coincidence of interests can override the very clear appearance of a conflict of interest.

The fact remains, he is an elected representative who must behave in a proper and independent manner, and like Caesar’s wife, be totally above suspicion.

As long as Barwell holds any position with the Whitgift Foundation, that is impossible.

FOOTNOTE: To underline why it is so important that those in power in Croydon act in a proper and responsible manner to get the best deal for the people of the borough, and not just for one or two well-moneyed interest groups and big business, it might be worth reminding ourselves of what could happen to the centre of town if it all goes tits up.

Today, Westfield, the key players in Croydon’s redevelopment, announced that they would be going ahead with the build of a scheme in the centre of Bradford. The decision comes nearly a decade after Westfield first cleared the site.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in "Hammersfield", Allders, Business, Centrale, Croydon Central, Croydon Council, Dudley Mead, Gavin Barwell, Planning, Toni Letts, Tramlink, Transport, Whitgift Centre, Whitgift Foundation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to £1bn property schemes, landowners and proper role of MPs

  1. davidcallam says:

    Gavin Barwell is an insignificant MP in a marginal seat.

    As such he will be expected by Tory high command to make the most of any opportunity to convince his more gullible constituents that he and therefore the party is their obvious choice come the next General Election.

    No doubt, you will do your best to disabuse Croydon Central voters of such a silly idea.

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