After venturing into Sutton on Wednesday evening, WALTER CRONXITE reports on the latest efforts by the council to avoid a proper inquiry into the awarding of a £1 billion incinerator contract
What a surprise.
Liberal Democrat councillors on what we might now call the “Sutton’s not-got-any-Standards Committee” decided at its meeting on Wednesday evening that there is absolutely nothing at all worth investigating in respect of the over-generous “gift” of £275,000 to a Wallington church often used by the local LibDems, the donation made by the charity arm of an incinerator company which has just been handed a £1billion public contract thanks, in part, to the influence of Sutton LibDems.
And the “Sutton wouldn’t-know-what-Standards-are-if-they-walked-into-them Committee” also decided that allegations that a senior LibDem tried to influence at least one councillor on the planning committee to grant permission to the same incinerator is also not worth having a look at, either.
“We’re not interested in allegations on a blog,” one of the committee members announced, apparently revelling in their ignorance. Inside Croydon has never been more flattered.
Add this shabby conduct to the Sutton chief exec going out of his way to try to gag a council whistle-blower, and for Sutton’s head of governance misdirecting the LibDems on the Standards Committee on the issue (whether deliberately or through simple incompetence is difficult to fathom), and any reasonable person might come to the conclusion that Sutton Council really doesn’t want anyone to look too closely at the Liberal Democrats’ relationship with Viridor, the chosen operators of the waste incinerator at Beddington Lane. What have they got to hide?
One figure who is playing an increasing role in the affair is Jessica Crowe, a local government official formally titled as Sutton’s “head of customers, commissioning and governance”, but who describes herself on her Linked In profile as “supporting culture change”. What kind of ethical culture, and what sort of change, we’ll leave it to our loyal reader to decide.
It was Crowe who drafted the report for the Standards Committee which found no cause at all for their to be an independent investigation into the role of former LibDem councillor John Drage in the awarding of the £1billion Viridor contract.
Drage had managed to sit on the South London Waste Partnership committee, which chose the contractor, for nearly five years without mentioning that he was life-long mates with the chief executive of that self-same company.
Nor does Crowe – “supporting culture change” remember – think that there was anything wrong with the same John Drage seeking to influence the outcome of the Viridor planning committee, as has been alleged by a former councillor.
Crowe is supposed to be a neutral public servant, and not allowed to display any political party preference. Before Wednesday’s meeting, she gave a briefing to the LibDem councillors on the committee, but not to the Conservative councillor who makes up the minority “group” on that committee.
In her briefing, Crowe told the four LibDems that the Beddington incinerator decision had already been subject to two High Court hearings.
This is not true.
How could a senior council executive manage to make such a blatant error of fact? Might the mistake – if that’s what it was – have been challenged at the briefing if the Tory councillor had been invited to attend?
But the LibDem councillors sitting in judgement on the Standards Committee chose to believe Crowe’s line. They therefore concluded there is no need for an independent body to investigate the awarding of the contract to Viridor or the allegations around the granting of planning permission, and the role in the whole matter of John Drage. Drage just happens to be the chairman of Sutton Liberal Democrats, as well as a personal friend of the former boss of Viridor.
Crowe had made another significant decision before Wednesday’s meeting, when she allowed LibDem councillor Richard Clifton to take part – even though Clifton has openly admitted he is a friend and neighbour of John Drage, and regards the reports of Drage’s failure to declare his interests over a £1 billion public contract as a “smear campaign”.
“I look at this sum of money and ask, ‘Who is it being paid to?’,” Clifton told the local freesheet. “Is it the Mafia, is it Colombian drug barons, or gangsters? No, it is the parochial church council of a small Anglican church in Wallington.
“There has been some supposed attempt to link the church to the Liberal Democrat party saying that we hold meetings there, but we don’t.” Clearly, Clifton must have missed out on the invitations to the frequent LibDem party political meetings and Tom Brake canvassing sessions run from the church hall. Or he is lying to protect his friend?
Without the merest hint of irony, all the LibDem members of the “we-don’t-even-know-what-Standards-are Committee” made a declaration before the meeting that they personally knew Drage, as their local party chairman. None of them thought this would in any way influence their decisions. Oh no…
Nick Mattey, the Beddington North councillor who has acted as a whistle-blower over this affair during the past year, was this week expelled from the Liberal Democratic Party, in a disciplinary action led by… John Drage.
Mattey is understood to have submitted a series of formal complaints to Sutton Council this week over the behaviour of some of his erstwhile LibDem colleagues, including the council leader, Ruth Dombey.
The complaints will need, in the first instance, to be dealt with by Jessica Crowe. But there must be growing concern about the council official’s impartiality, or competence, in such matters.
Council officials have been trying to warn off Mattey from questioning the Beddington incinerator deal for more than a year, beginning with a controversial meeting with the Sutton chief executive, Niall Bolger, last July, where the councillor maintains that he was subject to threats if he did not stop making his concerns public.
Also at the meeting were two other council officials. Earlier this year, Councillor Tim Crowley, the leader of Sutton’s Conservative opposition, met with Crowe and asked whether she would be looking into the allegations about Bolger’s behaviour. Crowe reported back to Crowley that she had spoken to all who had attended the meeting, and that it had been tough, but fair, and that Bolger had not exceeded what is appropriate or his authority.
Yet Mattey maintains that Crowe has never interviewed him about his meeting with Bolger. So Crowe had only spoken to Bolger and two members of his staff, and excluded a key witness from her “investigation”.
Of course, this may not have been a deliberate oversight by Crowe. In which case, it could be regarded as a matter of incompetence. But if it is the former, then it is beginning to look as if for six-figure-salaried Jessica Crowe, her notion of “supporting culture change” actually means protecting Sutton Council from reputational damage.
Here, in Technicolor Shakyvision, is a video of some of Wednesday night’s proceedings. Hardly inspires you with confidence in the calibre of some of our elected representatives, does it?
- Conflicts of interest exposed over councillor’s old pals act
- Sutton CEO accused of trying to gag councillor over incinerator
- Tom Brake link to £275,000 church donation from incinerator company
- Infant death rates on the rise where incinerators operate
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