How MP for Whitgift Foundation has lobbied ‘Inspector Blight’

STEVEN DOWNES reports on a Tory MP’s latest failure to declare his interests in a £1 billion redevelopment of central Croydon

The official inquiry into Croydon Council’s Compulsory Purchase Order for property in and around the Whitgift Centre began yesterday. And some in positions of public trust have, once again, been abusing their authority to exert influence on behalf of vested interests, without bothering to declare that interest.

Planning inspector Paul Griffiths has at least six weeks of submissions to consider over the Whitgift CPO

Planning inspector Paul Griffiths has at least six weeks of submissions to consider over the Whitgift CPO, including letters from undeclared governors of the Whitgift Foundation

The hearings, being staged in the council’s £144 million offices on Cost Us A Mint Walk, should last six weeks. It could take longer.

The inspector, Paul Griffiths, has no fewer than 141 formal objections to consider, received from bodies ranging from multi-national businesses to local shop-keepers, mostly with on-going commercial interests in Croydon, and specifically the Whitgift Centre. The proceedings have begun this week with the council making its case as to why millions of pounds of public money should be used to buy-up the properties.

It may not be entirely reassuring for business people and residents in Croydon to learn that Griffiths has earned the nickname of “Inspector Blight”, as a consequence of previous rulings. Griffiths came in for criticism from the Court of Appeal last year over some of his rulings on wind farms.

“The more ‘obviously modern’ and ‘large scale’ a wind development, the more likely that it would be given the go-ahead next to a historic site,” the Torygraph reported.

The newspaper report noted that, “The inspector has granted the vast majority of wind developments he has considered in the last four years, overturning rulings by local councils.” The judges overturned a decision by Griffiths which had given permission for four 400ft-high turbines to be built by an Elizabethan lodge on land belonging to the Duke of Gloucester, the Queen’s cousin. It’s difficult to determine whether this demonstrates that Griffiths may have questionable planning judgement, or simply is no respecter of royalty.

Timothy Godfrey: Labour councillor who has been critical of using a CPO

Timothy Godfrey: Labour councillor who has been critical of using CPOs

A CPO works by the local authority, in this case Croydon, buying up property in order that a preferred development can take place. In this case, that’s the £1 billion scheme proposed by Hammerson and Westfield, who are working on behalf of  the Whitgift Foundation, the multi-million pound private schools and care homes charity which owns the majority of the leasehold around the shopping centre and which stands to accrue the greatest benefits should the scheme succeed.

While not necessarily entirely indicative, the sheer volume of objections to the CPO – count ’em, 141 – suggests that the forcible buying-up of people’s businesses has not met with universal approval. Sure, some objectors might be pushing their luck, using the process as a negotiating technique to get a better deal. But all of them?

Back in the autumn, when asked about the large number of objections to the CPO, Jo Negrini, the council director in charge of redevelopment who has worked closely with Westfield in the past, suggested that it was her task to negotiate with the objectors and persuade them to withdraw. As far as Inside Croydon can ascertain, there had been a grand total of two objections withdrawn before this month.

CPOs should only ever be “a last resort” in the planning process, according to one Croydon Labour council cabinet member, Timothy Godfrey. But he said that before Labour was in control of the Town Hall, and before the Borough Solicitor slapped a gagging order on Croydon’s elected representatives, telling them not to discuss the CPO in any way. Transparency and openness are the watchwords of Labour’s new administration running the Town Hall, we were told.

Among the many thousands of other documents which the planning inspector has had to consider, on Monday, Griffiths received another letter on posh headed notepaper from the House of Commons seeking to exert influence over the deliberations. The letter’s concluding paragraph stated, “I would therefore urge you to support the proposed CPO on the grounds that it is clearly in the public interest, that there is no viable alternative and that it enjoys very strong support across the borough.”

The letter was signed “Gavin Barwell MP, Member of Parliament for Croydon Central”.

Gavin Barwell: wearing more than one hat, as Whitgift Foundation governor as well as an MP

Gavin Barwell: wearing more than one hat, as Whitgift Foundation governor as well as an MP

Clearly, Croydon Council’s Borough Solicitor’s writ does not reach as far as the local MPs. So while the borough’s 70 councillors have been gagged, the MP was able to make a public statement on the matter, to attempt to influence the outcome.

Nowhere in his more than 800 supportive words in his letter to the inspector about the Hammersfield scheme and its prospects, and those of the borough’s biggest landowners, the Whitgift Foundation, did the MP for Croydon Central bother to mention that he is also a member of the board of governors of … the Whitgift Foundation.

Not for the first time, Gavin Barwell appears to have used his position as an elected MP without declaring his interests. It can’t possibly be because he’s forgetful, since he has six staff to remind him.

So therefore it seems likely that it was deliberate.

Barwell’s intervention to support a related road-building scheme, proposed for another MP’s constituency, affecting the homes of hundreds of people and threatening a popular local park, has also been undertaken this week without any declaration of interest.

Again, it seems to have been undertaken deliberately.

And, ultimately, with complete cynicism.

Could Barwell face official sanction as an MP? Maybe. But our guess is that he has calculated that, by the time that the powers-that-be get around to slapping him on the wrists, he will probably no longer be an MP anyway.

And by then his interventions, to bulldoze a park in Waddon to build new roads, and to influence the judgement of the planning inspector, will have had their desired effect.

  • If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or local event, please email us with full details at inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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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", 2015 General Election, Bernard Weatherill House, Business, CPO, Croydon Central, Croydon Council, Gavin Barwell, Jo Negrini, Julie Belvir, Planning, Property, Purley Way, Timothy Godfrey, Tony Newman, Whitgift Centre, Whitgift Foundation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How MP for Whitgift Foundation has lobbied ‘Inspector Blight’

  1. Anyone with an interest of any sort in the proposed central Croydon redevelopment should declare it openly; in the case of the Whitgift Foundation they should be proud to do so, given the charity’s outstanding record in caring for people in Croydon borough.
    That said, I hate to have to agree with Mr Barwell, but in this instance he’s right; there is no commercial alternative to the proposed plan. If there was, don’t you think Minera and it’s cronies would have put it forward by now?
    The dye was cast for central Croydon in the 1960s when, for better or worse, the Whitgift Foundation decided to develop the site of its former Middle School, rather than sell it to a third party. All that followed, including the latest proposal, is merely a logical extension of that original decision.
    Once again you suggest that public money will be spent on buying land in central Croydon: that is incorrect. There are very stringent rules surrounding the use by local authorities of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs), intended to prevent the possibility of land banking. The authority will be required to show that it has a buyer in place with the money in hand to buy the land directly from the authority. The entire transaction normally takes place within hours, as the council is only there to enforce the sale, the lack of which might otherwise bring redevelopment to a grinding halt.

    • Two points.
      Just because there is “no alternative” (Thatcher’s favourite mantra) doesn’t mean we have to accept what is being foisted upon us. Indeed, in terms of much of the Hammersfield scheme, the detail is remarkably thin in terms of what will be provided.
      It is a matter of fact that millions of pounds of public money will be used to facilitate the CPO. To deny that this is the case is obtuse in the extreme.

  2. Of course the new scheme lacks detail at present: that’s why the council has only granted outline planning permission. Each building will be subject to detailed scrutiny in due course, when there will be a chance for any specific objections to be considered.
    The whole planning process has a cost; that’s the price we pay for democracy. But any suggestion that public money will be invested in the site for land acquisition is misleading to the point of being dishonest.
    I have no idea how the redevelopment will pan out, any more than you do, but we can’t have progress without change. And some of that change may be frightening to some people.
    The council’s job is to provide reassurance that the change will be beneficial for everyone, not just the fat cats. It’s record in that respect is not good. I would prefer a South London Development Corporation to be put in charge. But we are where we are.

    • How dishonest would it be to avoid mentioning the stage of a CPO in which a local authority forcibly buys property, as you would prefer?

    • Not to labour the point (oh no, we’d never do that…), here’s an extract from a piece which we published 10 months ago.

      It described our editorial position then, as it does now. You may find it helpful:

      By our highlighting the “overlooked” details, such as the site’s ownership by the powerful Whitgift Foundation, Westfield’s political allegiances and the three-year blight of the centre of town, Barfwell and his Glee Club cronies will try to suggest that Inside Croydon and anyone who refuses to subscribe to their rose-tinted vision for the borough is in some way opposed to the Hammersfield scheme.

      We are not.

      We have tried to maintain some distanced objectivity about the project, in an effort to better judge its true merits, the possible benefits for Croydon, but also the risks.

      Because Croydon, and Westfield, have been here before. They are not experiences we’d care to repeat.

      And here’s the link to the piece, which was news in April 2014 (so anyone suggesting that a statement made at the CPO hearing this week was “new” clearly needs to do a bit more research): http://insidecroydon.com/2014/04/08/whitgift-centre-to-close-for-three-years-in-croydon-facelift/

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