Croydon Council’s highly paid legal eagles see nothing wrong with current and former governors from an Oasis academy in the borough being part of a planning committee that is to decide on an application to build a six-forms-of-entry Oasis academy on Metropolitan Open Land next to the Croydon Arena.
According to council legal opinion, seen by Inside Croydon, there is not even the potential for any conflict of interest over Paul Scott, the Labour councillor who chairs the planning committee who is a former Oasis governor, and as many as three other planning committee members, including Tory councillors Jason Perry and Chris Wright, who are governors at schools run by the evangelical Christian Oasis organisation.
The legal advice is contained within a letter from Gabriel MacGregor, Croydon Council’s head of corporate law within the democratic and legal services department. It was sent after Christmas to residents in Woodside ward who are objecting to having the 1,000-pupil secondary school built on their doorstep, in already crowded and narrow residential streets on designated Metropolitan Open Land next to the Croydon Arena.
The legal opinion gives the Oasis governors free rein to pass rulings on planning matters affecting Oasis academies because they have no “pecuniary interest” – that is, because they do not receive any payment. This is the same veneer of an excuse given for Labour’s Councillor Toni Letts serving as the cabinet member for economic development while also sitting on the board of the Whitgift Foundation as it embarks on a £1 billion private development of the town centre.
It is also very similar to the legal advice given when the council was under Conservative control and a Tory councillor, Clare Hilley, was on the planning committee despite working for a building PR firm whose clients included some of the developers involved in multi-million-pound planning applications around the borough.
So the council’s in-house legal team is nothing if not consistently self-serving, whether under a Conservative or Labour administration. It remains to be seen whether the council’s new leadership decides to accept the legal officials’ advice. Notably the new council leader, Tony Newman, is a councillor for the affected Woodside ward.
The council’s considered legal opinion was provided in a response to Woodside residents who had written to the borough solicitor, Julie Belvir.
Belvir’s democratic and legal services department has also recently ruled that when the council’s chief executive, Nathan Elvery, performs the duties of the returning officer in elections held in the borough, he does so in a “private capacity”. Belvir receives a six-figure salary for working for the people of Croydon. Her office operates as part of the council’s chief executive’s department. During 2015, we expect the Croydon legal team to present convincing legal argument that the moon is made of cheese.
The latest letter from Belvir’s department, which has been seen by Inside Croydon, states, that on “…the basis of the information before me it would not appear that in doing so Members [councillors] have or would have erred”.
Responding on behalf of Belvir, MacGregor cites the council’s code of conduct to emphasise a distinction between whether a councillor (or council employee) receives payment – or what they term “disclosable pecuniary interest”, or DPI – from non-council activities.
“Generally however, there is no legal requirement to declare any/all memberships of external bodies, such as being a school governor (and no DPI arises) unless these memberships fall within one of the categories as specified in Schedule to the Relevant Authorities (Disclosable Pecuniary Interests) Regulations 2012 made under the 2011 Act.”
With a flourish of pompous yet meaningless legalese, MacGregor then introduces the Nolan Principles for public office, saying that, “The Code of Conduct does also provide inter alia that:
“Members [meaning councillors] must act in the public interest and should not improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person;
“When carrying out their public duties Members must make all choices, including determining applications, on merit without discrimination or bias.”
MacGregor is less helpful in providing guidance as to how the council’s legal department has mastered the power of thought control and mind-reading, to enable them to judge whether councillors are truly behaving in the public interest, and not in the interest of some outside body.
The Nolan Principles were drafted some 20 years ago, after the latest furore about the abuse of public office (on this occasion, the MPs’ cash-for-questions scandal prompted in part by the nefarious activities of Neil Hamilton. Whatever happened to him?).
In the view of some, the Nolan Principles are now as well-practised at Croydon Council as the works of the Nolan Sisters.
On this matter, though, MacGregor is unequivocal. The Nolan Principles “… place a duty on Members to resolve any conflicts between their public duties and private interests in a way that protects the public interest”. Which if properly applied, would surely see Scott and any other Oasis-linked councillors exclude themselves from all further planning committee discussions on the Arena Academy proposals to ensure, just like Caesar’s wife, they are above suspicion of even the potential for a conflict of interest.
The council lawyer writes: “While the potential for a conflict of interest between a role which a Member fulfils on an external body and their role on the Council … each Member should still have that potential in mind when deciding whether it is appropriate for them to participate in the consideration of a matter.” Clear enough?
“In the case of Members who are also school governors, they would need to be mindful of whether that role is in conflict with the role they fulfil as a Member of the Council and whether the actions/opinions they need to take/formulate on behalf of the Council to protect the public interest for Croydon would bring them into conflict with the views/role of that other body.
“Certainly, if an application by a specific school, of which a Member of the Planning Committee were a governor, came before the Committee for determination that Member would be recommended not to participate or vote in relation to the matter as this would in all likelihood be a conflict of interest,” MacGregor writes.
And then she provides this handy opt-out: “However, in this particular instance it was not the school of which the Members were governors that was making an application under consideration.”
So that’s all right then.
Clearly, the Oasis organisation will not have had any discussion, influence or overall policy towards schools in Croydon of which governors of other Oasis schools may be made aware.
MacGregor also offers further reassurance as to her and her council bosses’ abilities as far as mind-reading is concerned: “[A]s long as the Member does not have a closed mind to the matter under consideration (that is their mind is already made up and they are not willing to change it regardless of the evidence presented) they may legitimately be predisposed to a particular outcome and participate in the decision making.”
Our Council Tax-funded lawyer concludes: “On the information before me, I do not consider that there is a basis for advising the Planning Committee that Members of it who are school governors of any Oasis School cannot participate in consideration of the Oasis Arena application. I would however assure you that advice and guidance on such issues is provided to Members including learning and development opportunities where such matters are considered to ensure the continued lawfulness and probity of decision making.
“I trust that this clarifies the position.”
According to our sources on the council planning committee, the decision to allow the Arena Academy to go ahead is as good as made already: an agreement was signed by the previous Tory administration, and the current Labour-run council has been advised – by the council’s legal department – that to deny planning permission would put Croydon at risk of an expensive legal challenge, regardless of the planning considerations, such as whether such a school is required in this part of the borough or whether the site is suitable for 1,000 staff and pupils to come and go twice every weekday.
So much for councillors not having “a closed mind to the matter under consideration”.
- Time for a thorough ethical review of Croydon’s governance
- Woodside residents given a fortnight to review Oasis plans
- Planning committee dominated by Oasis school governors
- Woodside residents worried over contract for Arena Academy
Coming to Croydon
- Purley and Coulsdon debating society: Philp v Benn, Jan 5
- David Lean Cinema, Mr Turner, Jan 8
- David Lean Cinema, Leviathan, Jan 13
- Norwood Society talk: Penge, the making of a suburb, Jan 15
- David Lean Cinema, The 78 Project Movie, Jan 15
- David Lean Cinema, Hannah Arendt, Jan 20
- David Lean Cinema, The Imitation Game, Jan 22
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
- David Lean Cinema, Night Will Fall, Jan 27 (Holocaust Memorial Day)
- David Lean Cinema, Kon-Tiki, Jan 29
- Norwood Society talk: Crystal Palace and Dulwich, Feb 19
- Norwood Society talk: Charlies Dickens in Norwood, Mar 19
- Norwood Society: Balloons and airships at Crystal Palace, Apr 16
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