Over in Sutton, local councillor Nick Mattey is about to face an expulsion hearing from the Liberal Democrats after he dared to oppose his council’s scheme for a £1 billion industrial-scale incinerator on Beddington Lane, close to the borough boundary with Croydon.
Behind the party process was understood to be the former chairman of Sutton LibDems, John Drage. But as recent editions of Private Eye have demonstrated, there’s plenty about Drage’s conduct that is worth closer scrutiny, as WALTER CRONXITE reports
The South London Waste Partnership, of which Croydon is one of four partner boroughs, is the driving force behind the decision to build an incinerator in Beddington and the appointment of Viridor as the preferred bidder, awarding the company a £1 billion contract to operate the plant for 25 years, burning rubbish and waste trucked in from across south-east England.
The SLWP’s joint committee is the democratic decision-making body. The committee comprises two representatives from each member council – Kingston, Merton, Sutton and Croydon.
John Drage, when a Sutton councillor, was a member of the SLWP joint committee for five years from its inception in 2007 until 2012, making important decisions about Viridor’s contracts.
This committee awarded two 14-year waste disposal contracts to Viridor in 2008.
Drage left the SLWP joint committee in or around June 2012. He gave apologies for absence for the meetings on January 25, 2012, while the meeting of April 25 that year was cancelled. He was expected at the meeting of June 13, according to a Sutton Council document, which also reminded members unequivocally of their responsibilities to disclose any “interests” which they might have in terms of the decisions being taken. Although Drage was circulated with the agenda document, it was Councillor Roger Roberts who gave apologies for absence at this meeting.
But Drage was an ever-present until the point at which the South London Waste Plan – which agreed to use an industrial scale incinerator – was adopted in March 2012.
Drage had left the decision-making committee by the time the SLWP signed the contract to build the “Energy Recovery Facility” with Viridor in November 2012, though he had been present for most of a process that began in May 2009. It was the signing of this contract that required planning permission from Sutton Council to build the incinerator, so while the proposal for the incinerator was a joint effort of the four constituent councils of the SLWP, it was only Sutton Council that had to undertake the planning process.
Drage’s last recorded committee attendance was on September 22, 2011.
Councillor John Drage first publicly spoke of his long-standing close friendship with the then chief executive of Viridor Waste Management, Colin Drummond, at a Sutton Council Development Control Committee meeting on April 24 2013, which discussed the incinerator plans.
He had previously published this interest on Sutton Council’s register of members’ interests in July 2012 – five years after he had started attending SLWP meetings in which lucrative public contracts were being awarded to Viridor.
Drage also stated that he declared his non-pecuniary interest “when commenting in public on any matters to do with Viridor”.
This may be somewhat disingenuous, as this statement appears only to refer to business within Sutton Council, and statements in public.
There is a section on Sutton Council’s website for declarations of interest at SLWP joint committee meetings, and none is listed by Drage.
Drage mentioned in the Sutton committee meeting that he was previously involved in the South London Waste Partnership, but many have underestimated the total control that the SLWP joint committee exercised in making the decision to award the incinerator contract to Viridor.
The published minutes of the SLWP joint committee do not show any declaration by John Drage regarding his relationship with Viridor’s Colin Drummond, even in meetings the public could attend. The committee’s constitution is clear at section R22.1 that any interest must be stated at every meeting.
At the same time as John Drage was a member of the SLWP joint committee in 2011 and 2012, his colleague Councillor Paddy Kane was an appointee to the Viridor Credits local board. It was this local committee of Viridor’s charity arm which made the decision to award a £275,000 “gift” from Viridor to Holy Trinity church in Wallington.
The church was attended by both John Drage and his wife, Elaine, as well as having its hall used for LibDem meetings and canvassing on behalf of MP Tom Brake. The Drages happened to be significant donors to Brake’s campaign fund.
Serious concerns, including a police investigation, have been raised over Sutton Council’s processes, while the huge value of the £1 billion publicly funded contract awarded to Viridor has been questioned, as has the need for such an incinerator, and the very serious worries about the dangerous pollution created by the transport and burning of massive volumes of waste. Sutton Council’s shabby handling of the incinerator issue, and especially of former LibDem Nick Mattey’s whistleblowing, has created a rainbow alliance of opposition from Conservatives, Labour, Greens and UKIP.
Stephen Fenwick, another former Sutton councillor, has claimed that he was coerced into voting for the incinerator by other councillors, having previously voted against it. He also claims that Councillor Ruth Dombey, the LibDem leader of Sutton Council, and John Drage, as the chair of the local LibDems, forced him to plead guilty to an assault charge.
Former policeman Bill Main-Ian, a leading figure in Sutton UKIP, has said the “scandal is getting deeper and deeper by the minute” and called for a police investigation. A formal complaint was filed over Drage’s conduct in October.
Charlie Mansell, a former Labour councillor in Sutton, believes there is undue pressure put on LibDem councillors because of their group loyalty clause, under which Mattey was suspended.
And the leader of the Conservative group on Sutton Council, Tim Crowley, has said that his party voted against the incinerator because they did not believe what they were being told by planning officers or the Environment Agency, and that the figures simply didn’t add up.
For his part, Mattey is continuing his fight against the incinerator as an independent councillor, while facing a summons from the national Liberal Democrat Party, an action which was instigated while Drage was still chair of Sutton LibDems. At his hearing, early next month, Mattey is expected to raise the issue of Drage’s undeclared interests, and also of what he portrays as an attempted cover-up.
Mattey is requesting that Drage be forced to attend the hearing, along with his old mate Drummond. “One of the reasons given that Mr Drage has not been involved in any conflict of interest is because he is a god-fearing man,” Mattey has written to LibDem head office. “One of the charges levelled against me is that I went against a group decision. If that decision was arrived at through a corrupt process, will the charge still be valid?”
Mattey has also alleged that Sutton Council leader Ruth Dombey asked him not to write any emails regarding the incinerator, as an attempt to avoid information being searchable under Freedom of Information requests. Mattey also claims to be missing emails regarding sensitive issues from his internal Sutton councillor’s email account.
It seems clear that this is not a matter that Mattey is prepared to allow to pass without a fight.
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