The Liberal Democrats last night clung to power at Sutton Council, despite losing 12 seats in the local elections. But as CARL SHILTON reveals, they did so by deliberately misleading the public
In the final days before Thursday’s local elections, with Sutton’s ruling Liberal Democrats trying to shrug off the political damage caused by #SuttonBinShame, the Viridor incinerator and having a serving councillor defrauding local charities, Ruth Dombey, the council leader, and local MP Tom Brake began to smear themselves all over social media claiming the credit for a multi-million-pound refurbishment going on at St Helier Hospital.
But documents obtained by this website prove that Dombey and Brake’s claims are just the latest brazen lies from the FibDems, and that any improvement work at the local hospital has little, if anything, to do with the local authority.
The Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust recently began a £12million phase of building refurbishment works.
The LibDems’ election literature claimed that when Sutton Council paid £28million to buy land from the NHS at the Sutton Hospital site, it had made it a contractual point that the proceeds from the sale could only be spent on St Helier Hospital.
“I am so pleased to see all the scaffolding up around our hospital. It shows the true scale of this £28million refurbishment, the most significant in St Helier’s history,” Dombey said in the election literature.
“It has only been possible because Sutton Council made it a requirement when they bought land from the NHS for the development of the London Cancer Hub in Belmont.
“The agreement was that the NHS earmarked the money they received from the council for the improvements at St Helier Hospital.
“It’s clearer than ever that the Liberal Democrats are the only party committed to investing in our hospital and making it the best it can be.”
The leaflet, distributed to voters in the days immediately before the election, states directly that the “LibDem Council … has invested £28m in St Helier Hospital”.
The claims were also made elsewhere. At Carshalton’s election hustings, the leader of Sutton’s Tories, Tim Crowley, accused the LibDems of “putting out a lie about investing in St Helier Hospital, and it needs to be called out”.
Jayne McCoy, one of Dombey’s most trusted senior councillors, claimed the truth was “a complete contradiction to what Tim said. We negotiated with the Trust. There were two bits of land there. One was purchased for the school. Another tranche was bought for the Cancer Hub. We always had first option to purchase this land. But the way we did the deal was that we did it in two tranches, so that the money was used locally rather than going to the Treasury.”
The LibDems have been repeating the “investment” line on social media, too. Mary Burstow, who, until last night, had been a LibDem councillor for Cheam, when questioned about the veracity of the claim stated, “Under normal government procedures, the money would have gone back to Department of Health. NOT to St Helier Hospital.”
Her questioner had previously enquired of the council and Sutton LibDems when the council had taken over the strategic management responsibility for the NHS Trust’s capital spending programme. There has never been a response.
Inside Croydon’s investigation located a lengthy document from 2015 entitled A final full business case for the partial disposal of the Sutton Hospital site (catchy, eh?).
This outlined the Trust’s overall strategy for disposing of the land, with the early sale of 1.6 hectares to Sutton Council to build a school. It revealed that the council – as a public body – was able to make a case for first refusal on the sale, but it would have to be at market value, and the land used for public good.
In the “Project Headlines” section it states:
– Subject to approval of this business case the London Borough of Sutton will buy part of the Sutton site for £8.5m, which includes the council’s share of demolition costs.
– This will provide the trust with £6.7m to address critical backlog maintenance affecting in patient wards at Epsom and St Helier.
– The land sale is unconditional and not dependent on the trust carrying out any obligations.
The plan also makes it clear that the Trust was always going to use the money raised to refurbish both St Helier and Epsom Hospitals. There is no mention of any contractual rider from Sutton Council stipulating where the proceeds had to be spent.
In other words, Dombey and Brake, Burstow and McCoy all together propagated a big fat fib about the “investment” stipulation.
Some LibDems knew the facts – or they should have. In January 2015, the council Scrutiny Committee was told by Daniel Elkeles, the Trust’s chief executive, in regard to the proposed sale to Sutton of 1.6 hectares for a school, that “our aim is to use any receipts for the disposal of the land to make much needed investment in the rest of our estate”.
There was no mention of Sutton Council insisting how the funds were used.
Elkeles also received a letter that month from Robert Alexander, director of finance at the overseeing estates body that gives permission for disposals, the NHS Trust Development Authority. The letter stated that “the Outline Business Case for the partial land disposal of Sutton Hospital has been formally approved by the NHS TDA Director of Finance.
“The gross disposal proceeds are estimated to be £5.5million and will be retained by the NHS Trust for re-investment into critical back-log maintenance.” No mention of any conditions from the local council.
This letter predates the sale of the land to Sutton Council for £8.5million by two months.
It appears the LibDems hadn’t bothered to get their cover story accurate.
At the hustings, McCoy claimed the council bought two tranches of land. This is inaccurate.
Three tranches were bought, which accords fully with the Trust’s business plan. The first tranche was for the school. The second two tranches were for the proposed London Cancer Hub. The second tranch was sold to Sutton Council in March 2017 – with no contractual stipulations about fund usage – and the final tranche was sold in February 2018. Both were valued at around £14million, which seems to explain the £28million investment claim.
This £28million had to be borrowed by Sutton Council on a short-term interest-only loan from the Public Works Loan Board. The initial plan was for a co-investment with the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR), and then to find a private investor to finance the Cancer Hub and pay off the loan.
But the ICR had to pull out of the arrangement with Sutton to co-own and co-finance the purchases, as its charitable status did not allow such activities. Sutton was on its own, but not before the redundant private companies and LLPs had been set up to complete the deal…
The risk comes if the putative Cancer Hub remains a dream and no investor comes forward to repay the £28million that Sutton has borrowed. The council will still have the land, of course, and it could build houses, but a clawback clause in the sale contract means the NHS Trust would be entitled to a proportion of profits.
There’s still a massive problem with this, and not only in relation to the clear statements of the Trust’s intent in the Final Business Case document.
The Trust board minutes make no mention of financial stipulations in the deal. They always discuss re-investing the money in refurbishment work – with a total of £80million needed to bring the hospitals up to standard, to reverse years of neglect.
The biggest fact to nail the LibDem claim as false comes from the Trust itself. This extract from the Trust’s annual report for 2016-17 says:
“During the year, we sold an unused part of our Sutton estate to the London Borough of Sutton for £14million. The Trust has been allowed to retain these proceeds to address critical building maintenance issues at St Helier. This means that, in the early part of 2017-18, we can begin to renovate the roofs, windows and external walls of B and C blocks at St Helier, and replace all 133 of the draughty windows. This represents the biggest single investment in our estates for many years and is a major project.
“This is tremendous news and has only been made possible thanks to our excellent performance in A&E over 2016-17 and by meeting our financial plan for the year.
“By achieving this, our regulator gave us permission to invest the proceeds from the Sutton land sale back into our buildings.”
In other words, Sutton LibDems, Dombey and Brake told another big lie.
It was nothing to do with them or the council. They just bought some land, with public money. Nothing else.
To rub it all in, if there was any kind of stipulation, then the deal has been broken.
Last month, Elkeles confirmed to a Surrey newspaper that some of the proceeds from the sale of the Sutton Hospital land were to be used to refurbish… Epsom Hospital.
Sadly, a lie is half way around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Or before we were able to accumulate the documentary evidence and publish this report. For the LibDems in Sutton, their claim for the credit of an investment in St Helier Hospital over which they had no control may have been just enough to allow them to cling to power for another four years.
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