After more than three months in office, Toni Letts, the senior Labour councillor who is the cabinet member for the key portfolio of economic development, continues to fail to publish on the her profile page on the council’s official website her position as a governor of the Whitgift Foundation, the wealthy landowners at the heart of the £1 billion Westfield and Hammerson redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre.
St Toni, as some of her Town Hall colleagues refer to her, has been a Croydon councillor since 1990, first for what was then the Whitehorse Manor ward, more recently for Selhurst, and she was Mayor of Croydon in 1997. So she really ought to know better.
But Letts seems to be under the misapprehension that just because her (unspecified) duties for the borough’s biggest property owners are unpaid, she does not need to share that information as openly and transparently as possible.
Letts excuses her conduct by reference to the 2010 Localism Act, overlooking that two years later Croydon Council updated its own Code of Conduct, which demands that councillors must declare all positions and chairmanships, whether paid or not.
Earlier this year, when the MP for the Whitgift Foundation, Gavin Barwell was questioned on his own close ties with the governors of his former public school and their billion-pound property deals in central Croydon, we ran a poll of our readers, with the question:
“Should Gavin Barwell resign from the governors of the Whitgift Foundation to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest over Westfield?”
Nearly 600 people voted and 65 per cent gave the overwhelming response that Barwell should resign his positions with the Whitgift Foundation while an elected MP.
Labour’s Letts, who receives around £43,000 a year in allowances as a Croydon Council cabinet member, has adopted a similar position to Barwell on the matter.
Croydon Council’s Code of Conduct is not a long document, and it is not particularly difficult to understand.
The Code of Conduct begins: “You are a member or co-opted member of the London Borough of Croydon and as such you shall have regard to the following principles – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership and undertake to observe this Code when acting in your capacity as a member or co-opted
member”. Now wouldn’t that be nice?
All 70 councillors elected in May, we can expect will have been handed a copy of the latest version of this document. They may even have been expected to sign a copy and return it, acknowledging its principles and demands.
Paragraph 2(i) of the Croydon Council Code of Conduct tells councillors that, “You must act solely in the public interest and should never improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person or act to gain financial or other material benefits for yourself, your family, a friend or close associate.”
That’s worth noting: “solely in the public interest”.
Paragraph 2(ii) states: “You must not place yourself under a financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence you in the performance of your official duties.”
This is the conflict of interest clause. If we sub it down for the purposes of the Letts’ relationship with the Whitgift Foundation, that might read: “You must not place yourself under obligation to outside organisations that might seek to influence you in the performance of your official duties.” Straightforward enough. It would be easy to make a case that being a member of the board of governors of a dominant local landowner, with billions of pounds’ worth of property in the borough, might well place that person under some form of obligation, however small, to an outside organisation.
And paragraph 2(vi) states: “You must declare any private interests, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary, which relate to your public duties and must take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.”
Note the use of the word “must” in “You must declare”; this is not an optional extra for councillors, or indeed, for the council’s senior executives. And the use of the word “both” in “…both pecuniary and non-pecuniary”, which means it doesn’t matter whether you are paid for your private interests or not. You must declare it.
Some may regard it as high irony that there are more declarations of Letts’ manifold interests listed prominently on her profile on the website of the Whitgift Foundation than there is on her profile on the council website.
The Labour council’s economic development spokeswoman continues to hold a position as a governor of the Whitgift Foundation. It is almost as if the Foundation is boasting of Letts’ position of considerable power and influence within Croydon Council: “Toni is Croydon Council’s Cabinet Member for Economic Development,” is the first thing mentioned, front and centre.
“And she sits on our board of governors,” is the bit they might have added (but didn’t).
It seems so straightforward, you might wonder why Letts cannot ensure the same is done on her council online profile. Openness? Transparency?
The Foundation also reveals Letts’ other important, and declarable, positions as “chairman of NHS Croydon Board of Directors”, and a string of other outside bodies, such as a trustee of Croydon Church Tenements Trust, Croydon Committee, Croydon Relief in Need Trust and The Brenda Kirby Cancer Centre. Letts has chosen to list none of these on her official Croydon Council profile page. What harm would that do?
Letts is far from alone among local political figures within the Whitgift Foundation. Others to enjoy positions of (at least) patronage and influence include MP Barwell, there’s Tory councillors Dudley and Margaret Mead, the Terry and June of the Town Hall, and there’s also Nita Clarke, the former advisor to Tony Bliar and the mother of Labour’s Croydon South PPC and new councillor, Emily Benn.
There are two issues here with Letts’ position on the Foundation. The first, fundamentally, is the lack of clear blue water between her position as an elected councillor, and now key cabinet member, and this large and wealthy body with vast commercial interests in the town.
The second is one of openness and transparency.
Letts has made a number of declarations relating to the Whitgift Foundation, and these can be found on the council’s register of members’ interests. But she continues to withhold mention of her position as a governor on her online council profile.
Inside Croydon reported on the possibility for the perception of conflicts of interest immediately her appointment was confirmed by Labour group leader Tony Newman soon after the local elections in May.
When asked why she has continued not to declare her various interests, Letts took some time to respond and her reply has the finger marks of the Borough Solicitor’s office all over it. Her reply quoted extensive swathes of the 2010 Localism Act. What this response overlooks is that the Borough Solicitor’s office drafted the latest version of Croydon’s Code of Conduct in 2012 – apparently to establish within the law a higher standard of conduct for the borough’s councillors.
Letts seriously maintains, “There is no legal requirement to declare any or all membership of external bodies (and no disclosable pecuniary interest arises) unless these memberships otherwise fall within one of the categories as specified”, and she has then cut and pasted (or had someone cut and paste it for her) a section from the Localism Act.
“A member would not for example be regarded as having a beneficial interest simply because they may have membership with an organisation, or if they were a governor or a trustee,” Letts wrote. Croydon Council’s Code of Conduct demands a higher standard than this.
“Whether there is a conflict of interest between a role which a member fulfills on an external body and the role on the Council is a different matter and not something which is covered by the rules and declarations of interest but is still a matter which each member will consider in deciding whether it is appropriate for them to participate in the consideration of the matter,” she said.
“With regard to the Whitgift Foundation, you are correct I am still a governor and I am not a Council representative but a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury and as you will note from the above I am not conflicted.”
So Councillor Letts says there’s no conflict of interest, and the people of Croydon are expected to accept that. Like Barwell, Letts doesn’t appear to, or want, to accept that there is a requirement on her not to allow even the perception of a conflict of interest, for which given her simultaneous roles on the council and Foundation, there remains considerable scope.
Why do the likes of Barwell and Letts, when holding public office, find it so hard to dis-engage themselves with a wealthy private organisation? We’ll leave you to provide your own thoughts on that, since neither Barwell, nor Letts, have been willing to answer it themselves.
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Coming to Croydon
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- Cinema Ruskin film show, Oct 18
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