On a day when failure to declare even the potential for a conflict of interest has forced someone in public office to resign, serious questions have been raised about the conduct of senior council officials in Sutton and whether they, when commissioning an agency to win sponsorship for their trip to the world’s biggest commercial property conference, remembered to mention their own directorships.
Investigations into Sutton’s £30,000 trip to this week’s MIPIM speculators’ piss-up taking place in Cannes have revealed that council officials did direct the sponsorship agency, Croydon-based 3Fox International, to approach companies which were bidding for public contracts or had outstanding planning applications with the local authority.One of the companies listed as sponsoring Sutton Council’s debut at the cocktails on the Cote d’Azur event has Amanda Cherrington listed among its directors. This is the same “Mandy” Cherrington who is attending the four-day beano courtesy of the sponsorship pot, but in her job as a council official.
Meanwhile, the LibDem-run council has been forced to issue hurried apologies to councillors and local residents after it was shown that ahead of the event Sutton has provided misleading, or even deliberately false, information in their responses to formal enquiries about the sponsors, having suggested that several “MIPIM partners” had no business links with the borough, when in fact they do. In one case it involves a £29million publicly financed deal.
“There’s conflicts of interest everywhere you turn with this MIPIM event, and Sutton’s senior council officials have landed themselves in it, right up to their necks, all with the blessing of Ruth Dombey’s LibDems,” a Sutton Council source said today.
“There was the nasty smell around the LibDems’ dealings with Viridor over planning permission for the Beddington incinerator, and they don’t appear to have learned anything from that.”
Such uncomfortable truths may add a bitter twist to council chief exec Niall Bolger’s beachside G&Ts, or whatever is his preferred not-so-happy hour beverage this evening in Cannes, when he will doubtless be hard at work, wheeling and dealing between the canapes with some of the world’s biggest property speculators. Bolger is there desperately seeking backers for Sutton’s friendless scheme to develop a scientific research “hub” together with leading cancer charities.Part of the tangle that the council has got itself caught up in over its supposedly “cost neutral” jolly in the South of France for Bolger, Cherrington and their colleague, Mary Morrissey, is the nexus of out-sourced agencies and subsidiary companies Sutton has established in the past decade.
Cherrington, as well as having her £98,000 per year council staff job as “head of economic renewal and the business environment”, is also a director of Successful Sutton, one of the companies which is paying towards the three council officials to be at the MIPIM conference, which started today.
Successful Sutton, despite the potentially oxymoronic nature of its title, is a business improvement district, or BID, which is separate from the council.“So Successful Sutton is sponsoring Sutton Council officers – including its own director, Amanda Cherrington – to go to MIPIM,” a Sutton source said.
“That is surely a conflict of interest, and a clear commercial relationship, yet no declaration has been made in the context of this trip.”
To compound all this, another Sutton off-shoot brand, Opportunity Sutton – part of the council’s regeneration unit – managed to overlook Cherrington’s relationship with the BID company when drafting their responses to formal Freedom of Information requests.
Perhaps the council staff in Opportunity Sutton were confused – after all, there is another organisation called Opportunity Sutton, a limited company.
It is Opportunity Sutton Ltd which nominally owns SDEN Ltd, the Sutton Decentralised Energy Network company, which has been set up to “market” the hot water to be generated from the waste incinerator being constructed at Beddington. It is SDEN which has spent the past few years courting Barratts, the house-builders, to sign up for the incinerator heating system to be linked to their Felnex development.
Cherrington also happens to be a director of SDEN.
And a division of Barratts just happen to be another of Sutton’s MIPIM junket sponsors.
Opportunity Sutton Ltd and SDEN are the sort of companies which local authorities establish when they want to flex their entrepreneurial muscle, instead of simply getting on with the task of providing local services. It’s the sort of thing where, on the beach at Cannes, they risk having sand kicked in their faces by the real heavyweights of the property business.
For local authority public servants, who are employed in the first instance to look after the best interests of their Council Tax-payers, these sort of organisations create a multitude of potential conflicts of interest.
And it’s not just Cherrington who holds directorships. Morrissey, as well as her £125,000 per year day job as Sutton’s “strategic director of environment and neighbourhoods”, is also a director of SDEN-owning, Barratts-negotiating Opportunity Sutton Ltd.
It all begins to look more incestuous than an episode of The Borgias.In the midst of this tangled web of off-shoot companies and council officer directorships, council officials have been claiming, falsely, that there is “no existing commercial relationship or recent applications made” between Sutton Council and Successful Sutton.
In an FoI response to a Sutton resident, council officials managed to make the same misleading denial in two other instances.
“Barratts London – no existing commercial relationship or recent applications made,” they said.
This despite Barratts London having some of the same directors and being part of the same group as the part of Barratts which is building Felnex and which has been negotiating with Sutton’s SDEN for years.
And then there was “Willmott Dixon – no existing commercial relationship or recent applications made.”
Even though the builders were approved by Sutton last year as the contractors for a £29million publicly financed free school in Belmont.
But in other responses to Sutton councillors, there has been an unusual degree of frankness about the sales technique used to raise the sponsorship money.
A written reply, which Inside Croydon has seen, is backed up by testimony from councillors who say that they have been told directly by 3Fox International that Opportunity Sutton (the council department) was identifying to them companies with a commercial interest or investment in the borough to be targeted as potential sponsors.
According to Sutton’s “economic renewal” team, “The sponsorship model”, getting companies to pay for local authority officials to attend the MIPIM conference, “is one deployed across the country to enable boroughs to attend the event”.
To the question, “Have any of the delegation travelling to Cannes met any of the senior directors of the sponsors, if so who and when?”, the council replied, “All sponsorship is handled by 3Fox. The boroughs do not get involved in the sponsorship deal.” Apart from, perhaps, when their staff hold directorships in one of the companies sponsoring the borough, as has happened in Sutton.
So the Opportunity Sutton team, led by Cherrington, has been providing inconsistent and inaccurate answers about how their boss’s trip to MIPIM is being paid for.
In another response, they said, “The criteria for sponsors was businesses who already had an investment stake in the borough, this includes Barratts London.”
Of course, this also raises the possibility that some businesses “with an investment stake in the borough”, or with a planning application or two outstanding, might just expect something in return for their sponsorship Euros.
None of which, of course, could possibly happen with the sponsor deals arranged for MIPIM by Croydon Council, and their agency, Grey Label. Could it?
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