In the midst of the threat of a global nuclear war, heightened terror threats at home and the complications of the Brexit negotiations with the European Union, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell, has found the time to attend a meeting with shopping centre developers Westfield.
The meeting is understood to have taken place in the past fortnight. Neither No10 Downing Street, where Barwell is employed, nor Westfield were prepared to state whether the meeting was to discuss the progress, or lack of it, with the £1.4billion shopping mall development in Croydon, or whether it was a matter of party business.
The various off-shoots of the Australian developers have donated more than £500,000 to Theresa May’s Conservative Party since 2011, most recently handing over a cool £100,000 just a week after General Election in June.
That was around about the time that Barwell was handed his new, influential job at No10 Downing Street. Before that, Barwell had been MP for Croydon Central for seven years.
In that time, Barwell, together with the then London Mayor Boris Johnson, used their positions and influence to force Hammerson into a “partnership” of convenience with Westfield for the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and Centrale in Croydon’s town centre.
When that deal was unveiled in 2012, Barwell was keen to take credit for Westfield’s intervention. The freehold of the Whitgift Centre is owned by the Whitgift Foundation, the charitable trust which also runs three large private schools and old people’s homes. Barwell was chair of governors of one of the Foundation’s schools (£17,000 a year Trinity – where one of his sons is a pupil). Until 2014, despite being an MP, Barwell maintained a seat on the Foundation’s board of governors.
Despite repeated approaches over the weekend, Barwell declined to answer questions about his latest meeting with Westfield, and whether it was in his official capacity as the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, or on behalf of other interests closer to his Sanderstead home.
“If the Prime Minister’s office is taking a close interest in the affairs of central Croydon, that can only be a good thing,” one Katharine Street source said this morning.
“Though given Barwell’s previous close working relationship with the likes of Lord Ashcroft, the former Tory Party treasurer, it is just a likely that he was using his existing relationship with Westfield to rattle the begging bowl for the party to a known and regular donor. The Tories have a shrinking membership, and after calling the General Election, they need all the easy cash they can get.”
While many companies, including foreign-owned ones, often make large donations to political parties, they rarely do so without expecting some favours or favourable treatment in return.
In Croydon, the town centre redevelopment has badly stalled, with Westfield dragging their feet since 2015, when the government planning inspector conducted an inquiry into a Compulsory Purchase Order on a large area of the town centre and the local council granted planning permission for the developers’ scheme. Westfield now want a revised development scheme, doubling the number of flats to be built, but they have delayed over the past year in submitting a planning application.
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