BELLE MONT, our Sutton district reporter, on a 25-year multi-million-pound deal done by Sutton’s LibDems with a company under investigation for briberyLess than six months after it emerged that Niall Bolger, the chief executive of Sutton Council, wrote to senior elected officials to assure them that their local authority was not involved in negotiations with Barratt’s London over the supply of heating to a housing development in the borough, and Sutton Council has now announced that the first customers for SDEN – its Sutton Decentralised Energy Network – is none other than … Barratt’s London.
This could all get to be a little embarrassing for the under-pressure Bolger, after other recent council bollock-drops such as #SuttonBinsShame and last week’s disclosures by the council of thousands of pieces of personal data.
And Sutton Council has granted Barratt’s planning permission for an additional 80 homes in its Felnex development – which the builders’ marketing department is now calling The New Mill Quarter. They might be better calling it “The Twenty Mill Quarter”, because those additional properties alone are reckoned to be worth at least an extra £20million to the developers, Barratt’s London and David Wilson Homes, who are both subsidiaries of house-building giant Barratt’s Developments.
All this has been going on while Barratt’s London has been subject to an on-going investigation by the Metropolitan Police’s complex fraud team over bribery allegations.
Alastair Baird, the managing director of the London division of the country’s biggest housebuilders, was arrested last October, as was a former Barratt’s employee. At the time, Scotland Yard said that there was an ongoing inquiry into “a number of allegations of corruption … related to irregularities in the tendering process”. No detail has been provided about which projects this related to, and there is no evidence to suggest that any Sutton developments have come under the police investigation.
Barratt’s had been conducting an internal investigation since August 2015.
In January this year, a further three arrests were made by the police in the course of the continuing investigation.
Despite Bolger’s claims to the contrary, Sutton Council has been known to be courting Barratt’s for several years over its SDEN heating network. SDEN itself is a widely discredited scheme intended to use the heat generated from the Beddington Lane incinerator, all done to justify a pretty flaky business case for burning millions of tons of rubbish.
When the Barratt’s bribery investigation made headlines last year, Bolger was quick to distance himself and Sutton from any suspicion of involvement.
In an email to Ruth Dombey, the council leader, and other senior councillors, sent on October 20 – two days after Baird’s arrest – Bolger wrote: “We are dealing with a separate operational division of Barratts [sic]. Mr Baird is the MD for the London Division. The Felnex development is being taken forward by the Kent Division.
“So in response to your question, there have been no meetings with Mr Baird.”
While the last sentence may be true, this month’s sealing of the SDEN deal with Barratt’s London seems to suggest that Bolger’s written claim that the council had been dealing “with a separate operational division of Barratts [sic]” is, at best, misleading.
Sutton Council’s announcement this month of the SDEN deal makes no reference to Barratt’s Kent division, which Bolger claimed in his email to councillors was undertaking the Felnex build.
Sutton securing a major client for its heating for the next 25 years has been of fundamental importance to the LibDem-run council as it imposes the polluting Viridor incinerator on south London.
What potential buyers in the Twenty Mill Quarter will think of a system which pumps heat into their homes 24/7, all-year-round, remains to be seen.
All residents of Twenty Mill Quarter will be obliged to buy their heating under the SDEN deal, which should guarantee Sutton more than £6million income over the next quarter century.
The network won’t be receiving hot water piped from the Viridor incinerator for another 12 months. But it’s a reasonable assumption that anyone in the market for a three-bed family home with starting prices from £578,995 probably won’t really want to be living in a house that in July might be hotter than a Turkish bath.
It also seems increasingly difficult for Bolger to argue that no meetings were taking place with Barratt’s London over SDEN, or for the council to try to distance itself from the deal. In a press release issued this month by Sutton Council, Jayne McCoy, the LibDems’ chair of the housing, economy and business committee, said: “Not only have we ensured delivery of a decentralised energy network through our own investment, we are capturing an energy source that would otherwise be wasted,” where “we” means Sutton Council. This is clearly being put forward as a successful Sutton Council deal.
In which case, the questions which Niall Bolger needs to answer now include: how can he explain his previous claim, made in writing, that he was not dealing with under-investigation Barratt’s London but dealing with a different operating division of Barratt’s?
Or is he now claiming to have authorised the council’s business discussions to get underway with the company after Scotland Yard’s fraud squad started began its investigations?
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