BARRATT HOLMES reports on how the council CEO is trying to pretend that £250m-worth of planning applications from the council’s own housing company have anything to do with the council’s cabinet member for housing, whose husband also just happens to be the chair of the planning committee
There’s growing doubt that the favourite book of Jo Negrini is Nineteen Eighty-Four, after the council’s chief executive exhibited a most worrying ability to inhabit the world of Alice in Wonderland.
After indulging in some random word-banning at a council meeting this week, it has now emerged that Negrini is also prone to flights of entire fantasy, where her reality is different from everyone else’s.
Last week, in response to a complaint about the problems within the council’s planning processes as it deals – perhaps too favourably – with applications from its own house-building firm, Brick by Brick, Negrini wrote that, “I am not satisfied that the mere fact that Councillor Butler is the lead cabinet member [for housing] would constitute a conflict of interest.”
This was in reply to Chris Philp, until yesterday the Conservative MP for Croydon South, who had questioned the inappropriateness of the council’s arrangements around Brick by Brick, where Alison Butler is the cabinet member responsible for delivering housing, and Paul Scott, Butler’s husband, is the chair of the council planning committee which is ruling on those housing applications.
Philp has described Negrini’s response as “absurd”.
Butler and Scott were appointed to their positions by their Labour group colleagues. Butler and Scott comprise half of the “Gang of Four” of Labour councillors who have an iron grip on all Labour council appointments.
Scott’s bombastic conduct from the chair at planning meetings has created mounting disquiet among several residents’ groups affected as the council drives forward Butler’s home-building agenda, which even the Progress MP for Croydon North/Lambeth South [delete to taste] Steve Reed OBE has criticised in some areas as delivering “over-development”.
Inside Croydon has discovered that Scott is now subject to a formal inquiry by the Borough Solicitor as to his conduct, following complaints over his behaviour towards constituents and committee members at the recent planning meeting which approved a private developer’s new builds on a pocket of land beside the London-to-Brighton railway tracks at Purley Oaks, a site where all previous applications had failed because of its unsuitability, including a high flood risk in the area.
Brick by Brick was formed by the council as an initiative to use council land and buildings, and some public borrowing, to build homes around the borough. Thought to be an idea borrowed by Negrini from her time at Newham, Brick by Brick is a blatant subterfuge to get around Tory “Right to Buy” laws, which force councils to flog-off public property – council homes – at vast discounts to private buyers.
The supposedly arm’s length private company has Croydon Council employee Colm Lacey as its managing director and two individuals on its board, but no elected councillors to represent the broader public interests of the council or the borough’s residents.
Using around £250million of public property, half of the properties to be built by Brick by Brick will immediately go for private sale.
Butler’s part in Brick by Brick has been referenced frequently and often in the past 12 months, usually favourably when the Labour-run council is seeking to take credit for spending millions of pounds of public money on building what will be predominantly private homes.
The council’s deputy leader even recorded a little video last month – presumably paid for out of council funds – in which she does her best to read a carefully worded script held up for her over the camera operator’s right shoulder.
In the video, Butler says, “We’ve set up our own development company, Brick by Brick.”
The video seems to confirm a close link between the council, Butler and Brick by Brick.
There’s other little hints that Brick by Brick has closer-than-average ties with the council, such as its address, which on its own website is listed as “6th Floor, Zone D, Bernard Weatherill House, 8 Mint Walk, Croydon”. That’s otherwise known as Croydon Council’s offices, Fisher’s Folly.
Then there’s Brick by Brick’s staff, which as well as council director Colm Lacey, is soon to have four new members, all on up to £50,000 per year, and all recruited by and paid for by the council.
And when it comes to taking the credit for Brick by Brick, Butler’s name has frequently been mentioned, including by the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in his speech at last year’s Labour Party conference.
Yet according to Negrini, Brick by Brick’s nuffink to do with Butler. Oh no…
In a reply to Philp’s questioning of the inappropriate closeness of the cabinet member for housing and the chair of the planning committee, the council’s £185,000-plus per year chief executive wrote:
“I am not aware that Councillor Butler is involved as applicant on behalf of Brick by Brick or indeed that she could be, given that it is a separate and distinct legal entity from the council and not one in respect of which she sits on the board of directors or similar.” Negrini would know this, because that is how she set up the company.
“On the basis of the information before me, I am not satisfied that the mere fact that Councillor Butler is the lead cabinet member [for housing] would constitute a conflict of interest.”
So Negrini is seriously suggesting that the cabinet member for housing has no interest in planning applications for new homes being put forward by a development company which her council established.
“On a point of clarity, it is not within the monitoring officer or chief executive’s remit to remove a member from a committee. This is a matter which may only be undertaken by the [Labour] group. Even the Courts are only able to disqualify a member from acting following conviction by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Philp is not satisfied with Negrini’s arse-covering. “The fact Brick by Brick is not legally owned by the council is simply an artifice,” he said.
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