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.
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.
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”.
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.
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- Labour cabinet member Letts maintains her position on Whitgift board
- Should Barwell resign to avoid Whitgift conflicts of interest?
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