STEVEN DOWNES reports on a business connection between one of the Labour council’s leading figures and developers with a £1.4bn scheme in the town centre
Paul Scott, the chair of the council’s planning committee, today admitted that the firm of architects where he is a director had been hired to work on a significant project for shopping mall developers Westfield.
Yet in November, Scott failed to make any public declaration about this connection nor did he excuse himself from the key planning decision where permission was granted for the £1.4billion redevelopment of Croydon town centre by Westfield and their “partners”, Hammerson.
Scott has never made any secret of his role as a director of large London architecture firm TP Bennett, where he has worked since 1987.
While he and his close friend, council leader Tony Newman, have maintained that Scott’s architecture expertise makes him an ideal chair of planning, others, within the local Labour Party as well as the Tory opposition and residents’ groups, have suggested that it is this very involvement in the building industry, with the potential for manifold conflicts of interest, which ought to have automatically disqualified Scott from even being considered as a member of the planning committee.
But today, Scott maintained that there was no problem with him chairing a planning meeting considering an £1.4billion application from one of his own firm’s clients, because in February last year he had obtained a “dispensation” from the council to do so.
So that’s alright then…
TP Bennett is one of the firms that was hired by Westfield to prepare a scheme at Angel Lane, Stratford, close to the Olympic Park and one of Westfield’s existing London megamalls.
Scott’s colleagues at TP Bennett will have drawn up designs and proposals for their clients, Westfield, who wanted to build two tower blocks on the site in Newham, one of 14 storeys to provide a 192-bed youth hostel, the other an 18-storey office block with some retail outlets on the ground floor.
In matters such as this, Scott, in common with all councillors and council staff, are subject to the council’s Code of Conduct.
Among its advice and recommendations for how councillors should behave, the Code of Conduct says, “When acting in your capacity as a member… you must act solely in the public interest and should never improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person or act to gain financial or other material benefits for yourself, your family, a friend or close associate.”
Also, the Code requires of councillors that, “When carrying out your public duties you must make all choices, such as making public appointments, determining applications, awarding contracts or recommending individuals for rewards or benefits, on merit without discrimination or bias.”
And the council’s Code says that, “You must not place yourself under a financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence you inappropriately in the performance of your official duties.”
At the planning meeting in the Town Hall chamber on November 14, leading the long-awaited presentation for the applicants was John Burton, who as a Westfield director based in London will have also had an interest in the Angel Lane developments at Stratford. It is very likely that Burton may also have had a say in Westfield’s choice of architects.
But today, according to Scott, none of that matters because of the dispensation he obtained at a meeting of the council’s ethics committee in February last year – some four months after the planning application, including some TP Bennett designs, for the Angel Lane scheme had been submitted to Newham Council
Chair of the council’s ethics committee is the ever-so-keen to please Ollie Lewis, a first-term councillor whose ambition for a cabinet job under Newman and Scott’s Gang of Four is undisguised. Fresh-faced Lewis’s nickname among his fellow councillors is “Head Boy”.
Today, Scott responded to Inside Croydon’s questions by writing, “I have a Dispensation agreed most recently by the ethics committee at their meeting on February 1, 2017, recognising my links within the construction industry as a result of more [sic] profession as an architect.
“Westfield is not a client I work with, as I specialise on health and education projects at TP Bennett’s, such as hospital projects in Ghana, schools and universities. Also when I checked recently with fellow the [sic] principle directors and directors at TP Bennett’s, they confirmed that they are we [sic] not currently working with Westfield.
“As always the council and I take all matters of potential conflicts of interest very seriously.”
Asked to produce his dispensation in writing, in a further email Scott wrote: “The agenda and the minutes of the ethics committee meeting that agreed the dispensation a matter of public record and are readily available on the council’s website. I am confident that the ethics committee will have fully considered my professional and council roles in making its decision.”
Which is true, but only up to a point.
A dispensation is a special permission to take part in a meeting when otherwise it would be entirely inappropriate for the councillor to be present. The council report on that ethics committee decision offers five reasons why a dispensation can be granted.
1) That so many members of the decision-making body have disclosable pecuniary interests (DPIs) in a matter that it would “impede the transaction of the business”;
2) That, without the dispensation, the representation of different political groups on the body transacting the business would be so upset as to alter the outcome of any vote on the matter;
3) That the authority considers that the dispensation is in the interests of persons living in the authority’s area;
4) That, without a dispensation, no member of the Cabinet would be able to participate on this matter; or
5) That the authority considers that it is otherwise appropriate to grant a dispensation.
It is hard to see that any of these could apply in Scott’s case, apart from the blanket waiver provided by (5).
It is impossible to know on what grounds the ethics committee reached its decision, since the “Appendix 2” referred to in the report (which can be downloaded here as a pdf), and which contained Scott’s application for the dispensation, is not attached to the publicly available documents.
The other curious thing about this is that, as the report notes, usually the Borough Solicitor, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, an experienced lawyer, might be expected to provide the ruling on dispensations.
Yet on this occasion – with Scott effectively seeking permission to chair planning meetings at which clients of his own architects’ firm have an interest – the decision was taken by the ethics committee, made up of seven councillors, four of them from Scott’s Labour group.
As previously noted, Scott has never made any secret of his work at TP Bennett.
Indeed, the company’s website even flaunts Scott’s “prominent role on the planning committee” of Croydon Council. As one Katharine Street source said tonight, “That’s about as subtle a come-on as you’d get from a whore under a street light showing a bit of thigh.
“It doesn’t leave much to the imagination or need any reading between the lines: they have someone who has influence in planning on Croydon Council.”
And another councillor, who was at the Westfield planning meeting, told Inside Croydon today, “I was waiting for him to make some form of declaration before the meeting, but he said nothing. He didn’t even need to be there. It would have done him, and the application, no harm if he had declared an interest. The application was carried unanimously – it wasn’t as if the Tories on the planning committee were going to oppose Westfield.”
Tonight, we asked Scott how he reconciles his professional profile on the TP Bennett website with the strict requirements of the council’s Code of Conduct.
We are still waiting for a reply.
Declaration of interest: Scott is currently the subject of a formal complaint to the Labour Party from Steven Downes, following the councillor circulating libellous remarks about the journalist.
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