More than four years after Inside Croydon started an often lonely campaign for Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central, to quit his position as a governor of the Whitgift Foundation because of potential conflicts of interest with his public office, he has finally done the decent thing.
Barwell’s links with the borough’s biggest land-owners looked far too close, as the Foundation sought to impose a £1 billion commercial redevelopment scheme, with Westfield and Hammerson, on a large chunk of the Tory MP’s constituency, its residents and businesses.
The potential conflicts of interest were obvious and many-fold, but Barwell – private school- and Oxbridge-educated – always denied that any existed at all. And this despite his own gleeful boast when the deal was announced that he’d done much work “behind the scenes” to secure it.
But in a poll on this website, 65 per cent of respondents agreed that he should resign from the Foundation. That’s the sort of overwhelming majority which Barwell, recently returned as the MP for Croydon Central, can only dream about. He was re-elected with the votes of a mere 29 per cent of his constituents.
Yesterday Barwell announced that he would be standing down as a governor of the Foundation and as the chairman of governors of his old school, £15,000-a-year fee-paying Trinity.
Barwell announced, “Having been re-elected on May 7 and promoted in last week’s reshuffle, I need to reduce some of my other commitments. I’m obviously honoured to have been given a more senior role in the Government, but providing a first-class service to my constituents is my top priority and I need to make sure I have the time to do that.”
That’s a politician’s version of events, and a Tory politician at that. So it is clearly bullshit.
“Promoted”? Barwell remains in the whips’ office, albeit a peg or two up that ladder, and now with the Trumptonesque title of Comptroller General to the Royal Household. His onerous additional duties? Being an usher at Royal garden parties.
Indeed, sources at Croydon Tory HQ in Purley relate that Barwell has been seething, both at his being overlooked for a junior ministerial role in the first Conservative majority government for 23 years, and also because he has been overtaken in the climb up the political greasy pole by another career politician, Lambeth South MP Steve Reed OBE, who has been given the job of shadow local government spokesman by Labour.
Barwell did not resign for electoral advantage – too late for that. After steadfastly denying for four years that there was any need for him to resign from the Foundation, and without any real increase in his parliamentary workload, what has forced his hand now? After all, “doing the right thing” is hardly in Barwell’s nature.
Maybe he considers his work is done? He benefited from John Burton, the Westfield director, backing his election campaign. And through the involvement of London Mayor Boris Johnson, there is at least £130 million-worth of publicly financed transport schemes about to bulldoze their way through Croydon for the sake of the new super-mall. The result of the Compulsory Purchase Order inquiry is expected within weeks, when demolition work on the Whitgift Centre is expected to get underway. A bit of distance from any future suggestion of impropriety might be quite useful to all involved.
It would be naive to believe that Barwell’s involvement with the Whitgift Foundation, and the Hammersfield redevelopment, will end there. As the local MP, he’ll claim it is part of his job to keep tabs on what the developers’ own PR firm recently described as the “Croydon Takover”.
And Barwell’s long-standing links with other Whitgift governors, such as senior Croydon Tories Terry and June… sorry, Dudley and Margaret Mead, remain. As he has claimed more than once, Barwell is adept at working “behind the scenes”.
But if Barwell can at least appear to “do the right thing”, then shouldn’t Labour in Croydon do so too?
Two Croydon Council cabinet members, Toni Letts, in charge of economic development in the borough, and Upper Norwood councillor Alisa Flemming, both have seats on the Whitgift Foundation.
For some time, Letts failed to declare her governorship of the Whitgift Foundation among her councillors’ declarations of interest. According to her, she didn’t need to because she didn’t receive any payment.
Letts was appointed there by the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, but when Inside Croydon ran a poll about her over-close involvement with the Foundation, 81 per cent said she should resign the position for risk of being compromised by her involvement with the property-owners who dominate so much of the local Establishment.
Flemming, by virtue of her education brief at the Town Hall, might make an argument that she should have a role with the body which runs the massive private schools Whitgift, Trinity and Old Palace. But it is hardly a compelling case for someone whose priority ought to be the schooling of the vast majority of Croydon children.
So will Labour’s council leader Tony Newman now ask both councillors to stand down from the Whitgift Foundation and do the right thing for all of Croydon? Silly question…
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