So, this is what political lobbying looks like in Croydon in 2019.
The photograph shows a merry gathering of Labour campaigners, on the night last week that the Grauniad columnist, Owen Jones, paid a fleeting visit to rally activists as they battle to defend the marginal Croydon Central constituency held by Sarah Jones (no relation…).
You can even see the eager hack poking his head forward in the middle of the right-hand side of the table, among various parliamentary aides (technically, currently unemployed, at least until the outcome of the election is resolved), plus local councillors, council cabinet members and even a deputy leader of Croydon Council.
And there, sitting front and centre with them all, is Alex Priding.
You can see Priding at the head of the table, closest to the camera, bearded and grinning.
Priding is an account manager with a major political consultancy, PLMR.
PLMR is a Westminster-based company whose clients have included the likes of Barratt Homes, the Battersea Power Station development company, the Berkeley Group, Centrica, Clarion Housing, Churchgate, Crest Nicholson, the government quango Homes England, Joseph Homes, one or two local authorities (though not Croydon Council, for now anyway), Crystal Palace Football Club, Redrow Homes, Shanks Estate Agents, Spitfire Homes…
It is a formidable list of developers and house-builders.
De-acronym the company name, and it makes clear what their end-goal is in all things: Political Lobbying and Media Relations: PLMR.
Which is what makes this photograph, innocently posted on social media after a fun night with comrades, all the more insidious.
Priding was undoubtedly attending “in a personal capacity”.
“He is a Labour supporter, and I’m sure he was not there on behalf of his employers,” according to someone who knows him.
But then, nor did he need to be. Because in his business, it is all about making connections, of networking, of who you know… Because that’s how the spider’s web of making friends and influencing people works.
Certainly, there’s little chance that Alison Butler, the council deputy leader (sitting second left in the picture, with what looks like a rather large glass raised in toast), will make any declarations of interest, as councillors are required to do by law when receiving gifts or entertainment above a set value.
A couple of drinks, perhaps bought for her through the course of the evening, does not amount to anything untoward. In any case, as we have reported in the past, even when it does matter, Butler’s not very good at declaring real potential conflicts of interest.
But more of that later.
And it is not as if Priding is an especially senior member of PLMR’s very large staff. “He’s very junior in the company,” Inside Croydon was told.
Priding only joined PLMR earlier this year to, according to the company’s own website, “work across the public affairs, media relations and wider communications disciplines, and provides invaluable support to a number of client accounts”.
But on this evening, Priding was undoubtedly there in a personal capacity.
Also on his profile on PLMR’s website it says, “in 2019 Alex volunteered one day a week as a Parliamentary Assistant with his local MP – assisting with a range of policy and casework queries on local and national issues”.
“Local and national issues”?
Like what? Housing perhaps?
We’ve focused on PLMR here because that’s where, on this occasion, the consultants’ employee is from.
But as those communities in Lambeth and Southwark who have learned to their cost, there is a revolving door between Town Halls and the leading PR companies.
Whole neighbourhoods have been torn asunder by Blairite-run councils, when they have danced to the tunes of the major developers. Thousands of council homes have been lost in a drive for gentrification.
The end result has been social cleansing on an enormous scale in those boroughs, with council housing destroyed – the Heygate and Aylesbury estates in Southwark, for example, or Cressingham Gardens under threat just across our borough boundary in Lambeth – as Labour local authorities replace social housing with just what the developers want: high-end, high-priced high rises.
According to some reports, at one point recently as many as one-fifth of Southwark’s 63 councillors worked as lobbyists, usually with clients who are developers or involved in the planning industry. Several senior council staff, too, have found themselves cushty jobs with consultants when they have opted to no longer add to their local council pension pot.
In the case of PLMR, the chief executive of Priding’s employers is Kevin Craig who just happens to be… a Labour councillor in Lambeth.
Craig continues as a councillor at Brixton Town Hall today. His time in office includes three years as the chair of the Lambeth Council planning committee. Seriously.
Craig’s profile on his company website gushes with praise for the firm’s founder. “Kevin is expert in political communications, crisis management, and corporate communications,” it tells us.
“He started PLMR in 2006 and it’s now one of the UK’s Top 100 and the World’s Top 250 communications firms. He chairs the PLMR Board and works on key PLMR clients… Kevin is one of the UK’s top public affairs, public relations and crisis management experts,” the profile repeats, just in case you hadn’t got the message.
Expert. Political. Corporate.
Elsewhere, the company boasts about itself that, “PLMR is … based in Westminster at the heart of the UK’s political scene, and with more than 50 consultants working across a wide range of sectors with various specialisms, we are one of Britain’s fastest-growing communications companies.
“No matter what sector you operate in, or what your campaign goals are, we have the expertise to deliver the results you need.” You’re impressed, we can tell.
“The PLMR team includes former political candidates and advisers, and public affairs experts, who can help you to navigate the parliamentary landscape and ensure your message reaches people of influence to produce real change.”
Nothing less than touting the purchase of influence, for those who can afford it.
So why was Priding’s presence at this seemingly cosy, post-rally drinks in Croydon potentially significant?
Just look around the table.
To Priding’s immediate right is Caragh Skipper, Croydon’s newest councillor, the unselected Labour candidate in this month’s Fairfield by-election.
It is expected that once the General Election is over and council business returns to what passes for “normal”, Skipper – a Shirley resident who works for the Labour Party – will be immediately thrust into the deputy cabinet post for housing.
That’ll be tough on Patricia Hay-Justice, who has probably got used to receiving the £21,595 allowances that goes with the position, but that’s the way council leader Tony Newman and Butler run the Town Hall: patronage and favouritism.
As we know from the photograph that they have met, it’s fair to assume that Priding and Skipper are on first-name terms, which is always a handy ice-breaker for any ambitious young PR consultant when calling up a councillor who holds a position of some influence.
Then, to Priding’s left, we have someone with experience of both PR consultancies and development companies. That is Jed Mohammed, Alison Butler’s son.
Last year Mohammed enjoyed a brief spell working as an intern for The Campaign Company, the Croydon-based consultancy run by Butler’s former partner, David Evans. It’s not clear whether Mohammed was cut out for the “how to make friends and influence” business – certainly, he was never taken on after his internship.
In 2018, Inside Croydon reported how Town Hall contracts worth almost £200,000 had been awarded to Evans’ company. We also reported how The Campaign Company was hired to run public consultations on behalf of Brick by Brick, the council’s wholly-owned housing developer, and over which Butler, as the cabinet member responsible for homes, has a direct responsibility.
Despite her family ties (Butler and Evans have a daughter together), the council’s deputy leader never bothered to include reference to the generous council contracts nor the Brick by Brick family tie-up in her declarations of interest.
With so many juicy contracts put the way of The Campaign Company by Butler’s council and by the council-funded Brick by Brick, other consultants, such as PLMR, no doubt will have an interest in bidding for future business. Socialising with the council’s movers and shakers, such as Butler and her husband, Paul Scott, is one way towards achieving just that.
And there, at the far end of the table, exhibiting an uncomfortable rictus smile, is none other than Scott himself, Croydon’s de facto chair of planning and also cabinet member in charge of development.
Many in Croydon might say that Scott has an over-weaning influence in how the borough is developed, and how planning is handled.
To any house-builder or developer, or any budding communications consultant, the opportunity to have a quiet drink with Scott could be extremely valuable. Perhaps Scott might accept financial donations from a developer to a campaign fund the next time he is seeking election? Maybe he might accept a dishwasher towards the up-keep of one of the two houses that he and Butler owns?
And, maybe, he might even include such gifts and donations in his official council declarations. Because that’s how to make friends and influence people in Croydon in 2019.
- Inside Croydon: the only local news source based in the borough. Help to support our journalism, and get money-off offers, exclusive content and priority booking for special events. Click here to find out more
- Inside Croydon Events: click here for details of hundreds of events in and around Croydon
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and BBC London News
- Inside Croydon named Journalist of the Year at 2018 Anna Kennedy Online Autism Heroes Awards
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: For two consecutive years, 2017 and 2018, Inside Croydon has been the source for two award-winning nominations in Private Eye magazine’s annual celebration of civic cock-ups
- In 2018, Inside Croydon had 1.6million pages viewed by more than half a million unique visitors
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or what to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org