Inside Croydon editor STEVEN DOWNES on the multi-tasking tests, and moral challenges on his home patch, which are facing Croydon’s Government minister for housing, planning and London
A bit of polite name-calling is all part of the cut and thrust of politics these days. Though Gavin Barwell, the newly appointed Minister for London in Theresa May’s Government, might have hoped to go at least one day into his new job before being dismissed as “utterly superfluous”.
Barwell, the MP for the increasingly gritty and urban London constituency of Croydon Central, was this week handed the ministerial responsibility for the capital alongside two other demanding and important roles at the Department for Communities and Local Government: housing and planning.
Barwell is the first London Minister appointed at Westminster in six years, something which Martin Hoscik, the influential editor of the MayorWatch website, believes is entirely unnecessary. Describing Barwell’s role as “unaccountable” and a “part-time minister for London”, Hoscik suggests the Conservative Prime Minister’s appointment has been made to undermine the Mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan.
The Tories appointed no such minister for six years while Boris Johnson was at City Hall.
“There’s a risk that instead of Sadiq and his officials continuing to deal with the decision makers in, for example, the Department for Transport, they suddenly find themselves expected to lobby alongside Barwell,” Hoscik wrote.
“To me it looks very much like this position has been revived, in part at least, to allow the Tories to claim a slice of the credit for London’s continued success plus any big new initiatives so that they have a handy roll call of brags ready for the 2020 City Hall election.”
And for anyone that has followed the parliamentary progress of Gavin Barwell, they will realise that could be a perfect description of Barwell’s principle skill.
The “utterly superfluous” tag Barwell has been saddled with, though, was not the end of it. By the end of a week which included a somewhat flustered appearance on the BBC’s lunchtime Daily Politics show, the Croydon MP was also being derided in the Grauniad over his housing minister responsibilities.
“Conservative housing ministers are as common as garden weeds but far easier to get rid of,” wrote Dawn Foster, who could not resist having another pop when reminding the new multi-tasking minister of his “Dating Arab Girls” embarrassment.
“Now, step forward Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon South, the latest in a long line of white Tory men here to shake up the UK’s housing provision, and notably a man previously most famous for misunderstanding how Google Analytics work.” Hubris is a wonderful thing.
Barwell likes to consider himself a socially conscious Conservative, though he has led a chameleon-like career in which he has endeavoured to be all things to all men (and women). This career politician has remained a party loyalist, and in six years at Westminster he has rarely defied his party whip. That means that he supported the introduction of the Bedroom Tax, has tended to back reductions in welfare spending, and has never “rebelled” over any of the more perniciously divisive social measures backed by his Tory Party.
Now aged 44, Barwell’s career path is fairly typical of a modern-day “professional” politician: from minor public school he went to Cambridge University (where he was President of the Union), then Tory Central Office. It was there that, before his own election as an MP, he worked on the 2010 general election plan with the deputy party chairman and major party donor, the billionaire non-dom Lord Cashcroft.
The circumstances of Barwell’s selection for the Conservatives in Croydon Central for the 2010 election remain disputed, since the Tories already held the seat, through Andrew Pelling, a former colleague of Barwell’s on Croydon council (an one-time contributor to this website).
Pelling made tabloid headlines in 2007 after a domestic dispute. He had the party whip withdrawn by David Cameron – a serious matter for an MP, who depends on the support of his party.
Pelling was never charged with any offence, and he successfully sued the Mail on Sunday for libel over its coverage of the incident. But the stress of the situation affected his health.
The Tories at Westminster refused to restore the whip to Pelling, and Barwell, his sometime friend, could not disguise his eagerness to replace him.
In his recent Ashcroft-published memoir, Barwell recalled aspects of his selection in place of Pelling, whom he describes at first as “my friend”. Barwell’s version of events is not entirely accurate, according to Pelling.
“Re-inventing history is an unattractive trait,” Pelling said.
“In his book, Barwell says that he took the Conservative candidacy while there were months of uncertainty as to whether I might be charged with an offence. This is untrue. No charge was ever made. It was made clear by the Crown Prosecution Service after just a month of police enquiries that there would be no charge, this CPS advice being made months before Barwell took the candidacy.”
Such opportunism as displayed by Barwell is perhaps a pre-requisite of being a politician. Maybe a lack of conscience is, too. In 2012, when he was fourth in the Westminster ballot for private members’ bills, and without any reference to the circumstances of his selection, Barwell sponsored the Mental Health Discrimination bill, which successfully passed into law.
But then, Barwell is full of contradictions.
In common with many MPs, Barwell does not actually live in his constituency, having a home in the leafy suburb of Sanderstead. Barwell and his wife, Karen, have three sons, the eldest of whom they sent out of their home borough to a selective grammar in Sutton. Sending him to Barwell’s own old (fee-paying) school might not have gone down so well when there was an election approaching.
Barwell’s greatest achievement in his first five-year term in parliament was to champion “Lillian’s Law”, named after Lillian Groves, a teenager from New Addington, in his constituency, who died after being hit by a car driven by someone high on drugs. The new law gives the police similar powers against those driving under the influence of drugs as those for drink-driving.
Otherwise, Barwell has spent much of his time in parliament assiduously cultivating a reputation as a busy constituency MP, an image created with the help of a state-funded staff of six, at one point including four local Tory councillors.
But Barwell was silent in parliament on Croydon, London and housing matters for the last three years, precluded from making speeches while he was an eager member of the Tory Whips’ office, the first rung of the parliamentary career ladder.
It doesn’t mean Barwell has been out of the headlines altogether, though. Most recently, the Evening Boris reported that someone in the Whips’ office – barely disguised as Barwell – was using all the “black arts” of persuasion associated with House of Cards to ensure that Conservative MPs backed Theresa May over Michael Gove in the leadership selection process. That couldn’t have harmed Barwell’s ministerial prospects once May assumed the leadership of the nation with the support of fewer than 300 citizens.
Barwell’s previous dalliance with the Standard, of course, came in April last year, when he made front-page news for inviting his Croydon supporters to pen “personal” letters of support on his behalf ahead of the General Election, but asking them not to mention David Cameron or that Barwell happened to be a Conservative MP. Although he was rumbled, the deceptive strategy worked: at the May 2015 General Election, Barwell was returned, though only by 165 votes, making Croydon Central London’s most marginal seat.
The conduct of which Barwell ought to be most ashamed came on August 8, 2011, the night of the Croydon riots. Rather than rush to the scene of the looting and destruction which was happening right in the heart of his constituency, or even attend the police command centre in the town centre, Barwell instead drove to the safety of his home to watch events unfold on television.
Recently, Barwell has reeled back much of his social media activity, noticeably so since one of his aides – Mario Creatura, who in an echo of the “Dating Arab Girls” bollock drop, said that as far as t’interweb is concerned, “Gavin has no idea. He trusts me to do whatever” – opted to leave the MP’s office to work for a brewer instead.
It may be that Barwell is being more cautious, since he has been subject to repeated warnings from parliamentary and other authorities over the misuse of his official email and other Westminster privileges for party political purposes.
And Barwell’s attempts to “re-write history” could yet get him in deeper trouble, since his version of events in his autobiographical account of the 2015 election is noticeably different from the election expenses accounts which he and his agent submitted. Barwell is now among 30 Tory MPs whose 2015 election spending is subject to police investigation.
If that is not enough, for his first ministerial job(s), Barwell has undoubtedly been given one of the toughest of tasks. Barwell’s arrival at DCLG has coincided with a report from his own department which shows that there are nearly 90,000 children in London living in temporary accommodation.
It is a situation Barwell acknowledged in his statement on being made housing minister: “Too many people are having to live in overcrowded or even unsafe conditions. Too many people don’t have a permanent place to call home. Too many people are having to pay too much of their monthly earnings on their housing costs. And – as the Prime Minister said in her moving speech outside Downing Street on Wednesday night – too many people who want the independence of owning their own home currently can’t afford to do so.
“I look forward to working with councils, housing associations, developers, investors and local communities to make sure we build [the homes] we need with the mix of tenures that people want and that those homes should be great places to live.”
Which sounds fine, but Barwell’s track record in Croydon has shown him struggling to separate properly his personal interests from those of his office, and his appointment as housing minister could test his position to breaking point.
Because Barwell’s long-standing loyalties to the Whitgift Foundation, of which the former scholarship boy at Trinity School was a board member until he stepped aside just a year ago (did he do so with an eye on a ministerial appointment then?), could yet come back to bite him in the arse at the DCLG.
The Foundation are the land-owners whose property is at the centre of the £1.4 billion redevelopment of the town centre, to replace the ageing Whitgift Centre with a Westfield supermall, offices and flats.
After four costly years of discussions, the granting of planning permissions and a month-long Compulsory Purchase Order inquiry which appeared to give the project a green light, the developers then plonked a radically revised scheme on the desk of the council’s planning department, and were dismayed when it was firmly rejected by the local authority’s planning committee.
Those new plans from Westfield and Hammerson have doubled the number of homes proposed, to around 1,000 – most expected to be high-profit “luxury” or “executive apartments”, accommodated in a series of dominating high-rise tower blocks. Hardly “the mix of tenures that people want” in “great places to live”, as Barwell appears to advocate.
Hammersfield were sent off with a flea in their ear and told to have another look, and were expected to revise their revised plan. Nothing is tabled for next Thursday’s council planning committee meeting, so the earliest that the plans might be reviewed again is the meeting on August 18.
And here lies the rub, because if Westfield and Hammerson can’t satisfy Croydon Council’s planners and councillors, then they have the option to appeal to … the DCLG. There, the multi-billion-pound project to redevelop the Whitgift Foundation’s property would usually land on the desk of the planning or the housing minister.
And that £1.4 billion property deal is, as far as Barwell is concerned, something that has never been “utterly superfluous”.
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