EXCLUSIVE: Our Sutton reporter, BELLE MONT, has uncovered proof that a close party colleague of MP Tom Brake was enjoying hospitality with the incinerator operator just four days before a crucial council meeting to approve a £1bn, 25-year contract
Evidence has emerged that suggests that a senior Liberal Democrat councillor, at the centre of the decision-making process over the £1billion Viridor incinerator at Beddington Lane, dined out with the chief executive of Viridor just four days before a key council meeting – and yet failed to declare the hospitality or his relationship with the company chief, as is required by law.
Inside Croydon’s findings tonight prompted one current Sutton councillor to call for full and independent investigation into the affair, while the local resident who mounted a High Court challenge against the decision to build the incinerator – costing him personally £5,000 – accused Sutton Council of deliberately helping to conceal the links between the LibDems and Viridor.
John Drage stood down as a Sutton councillor in 2014, when he took on the role of chair of the Sutton Liberal Democrat Party.
Together with his wife, Elaine, the Drages had for many years been among the most generous donors to the LibDems in Sutton, handing over £68,305 for the party’s campaign war chest, with £8,373 of Drage cash going to help get Tom Brake re-elected.
Brake is the Liberal Democrats’ longest continually serving MP, having been first elected for Carshalton and Wallington in 1997. For many of those years, Elaine Drage served as Brake’s election agent.
This Thursday, fervent Remainer Brake is seeking re-election once again in a strongly Brexit-backing constituency, and the outcome is thought to be so close that it has been suggested that a call has gone out to Brake’s most loyal and effective campaigners, John and Elaine Drage, to leave their retirement home in the Malvern Hills and return to Wallington to help get the vote out once again.
The incinerator is now built and dominating the Sutton skyline for miles around. If voters realised the role played by Brake’s supporters in pushing through the decision to build it, their votes on Thursday could be influential in what is a marginal seat.
The incinerator was given a planning green light in 2013, and the £215million plant – the largest building in the borough of Sutton – was meant to have been built and completed its trials by August 2018. It has yet to go fully operational.
The incinerator has been commissioned by the South London Waste Partnership, a body formed by Sutton, Croydon, Kingston and Merton coouncils, with each borough agreeing to pay Viridor £100million per year for 25 years to burn their residents’ waste.
The incinerator project went ahead despite a legal challenge in the High Court brought by residents concerned at the serious pollution such a plant might create, with resultant health issues.
But evidence uncovered through a series of Freedom of Information requests since, and never available for the Judicial Review, show that Viridor’s case at the South London Waste Partnership meetings and at Sutton Council were potentially influenced by John Drage, who failed to fulfil his legal responsibilities and declare his lifelong family friendship with Viridor CEO Colin Drummond.
Drage, as the council’s executive member for finance, efficiency and value for money, was at the Sutton meetings that debated and later rubber-stamped the Viridor decision in September and November 2011. Drage never mentioned to the SLWP nor declared an interest at Sutton Council ahead of those meetings that he was a life-long friend with Drummond.
It wasn’t until July 2012 when Drage finally registered with Sutton Council that he knew Drummond. It seems to be a strange slip of the memory over these important public declarations: after all, Elaine Drage is godmother to one of Drummond’s sons. Had John forgotten?
By the time Drage got around to declaring his relationship with Drummond, he’d stood down from the SLWP role and Viridor had managed to secure the juicy public contract. In his register of interests, Drage noted that Drummond had entertained him and his wife on two occasions.
Details obtained through Freedom of Information requests suggest that one of these occasions was at a formal dinner in the City of London on November 3, 2011 – just four days before Drage was voting through Viridor’s contract at the Sutton Council executive meeting.
Drage never bothered mentioning this clear potential conflict of interest at the meeting. Perhaps Drage had enjoyed one glass of port too many at the formal function, the annual banquet of the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators, one of the City of London Livery Companies, and held at the sumptuous Drapers’ Hall.
Or perhaps it really wasn’t that memorable occasion?
Or is it more likely that Drage deliberately withheld details of his relationship with the Viridor CEO for fear it might jeopardise the incinerator contract going through?
Complaints about Drage’s omission and potential breach of the Nolan Principles, which lay down the standards expected of those in public office, were made by Nick Mattey, the councillor for Beddington North, who Drage helped to get expelled from the Liberal Democrats because of his vocal opposition to the Viridor incinerator.
Mattey’s complaint resulted in a Sutton Council standards committee hearing in September 2015, where the LibDem-dominated committee refused to call for an independent inquiry into the affair.
They were also asked to consider a donation of £275,000 by the Viridor Credits company to the Holy Trinity Church in Wallington. Holy Trinity was the church attended by John and Elaine Drage, while its church hall was often used as a campaign base for Tom Brake election events.
One of the members of the standards committee, LibDem councillor Richard “Bernie” Clifton, referred to his old mate Drage as a “God-fearing man” who had done much good for Sutton. Another committee member, Marlene Heron (also a LibDem), said: “I’m more worried about the unreasonable behaviour of Councillor Mattey, bringing the Council into disrepute. He should be censured.”
Tim Crowley, the leader of the opposition Tories in Sutton Council, filed a complaint of his own to the council’s monitoring officer, Jessica Crowe, and CEO, Niall Bolger.
Crowe contacted John Drage to ask for clarification over what happened in the contract award process, and about his relationship with Drummond.
In an email to Drage on May 12, 2015, Crowe wrote: “In 2013 you twice declared a non-pecuniary interest when speaking at the planning committee but in 2011 you do not appear to have done so when the contract was being awarded.
“It would be really helpful if you could explain what happened from your perspective, eg. were you not acquainted with the Viridor Chief Executive at that time, was it an oversight, did you believe it was not a relevant interest as it was not a significant friendship or relationship, did you seek advice and were told that you did not need to declare etc?
“Were there any other, earlier, decisions made at SLWP where this might have been an issue?”
On May 14, Drage replied to Crowe: “With the benefit of hindsight I now think I should have declared a non-pecuniary interest at both the SLWP JWC meeting of 22 September 2011 and at the meeting of Sutton’s Executive on 7 November 2011. I regret that I failed to do so.
“At that time I had not met Colin Drummond, the then CEO of Viridor, for a number of years (not since 2000 we think) and I had had no contact with him during the time he had been working for Viridor. Hence, in 2011 it did not occur to me that the fact I knew him on a personal basis – as a result of my wife’s having known him 40 years ago when they were at University together – meant I should have declared a non-pecuniary interest at that time.
“I did not regard it as a significant relationship.”
Drage continued: “Mr Drummond is a member of the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators (one of the City of London Livery Companies). In 2012 he invited my wife and I to be his guests at two of the Company’s social functions. We attended these events and I declared them in the Public Register of Gifts and Hospitality. It was once I had had this recent contact with Mr Drummond and accepted his hospitality that I thought I needed to declare the fact I knew him as a non-pecuniary interest.”
Drage issued his explanation to the press. The problem with his statement is that it is simply untrue in many critical respects.
In January 2016, Mattey was summoned to a “Star Chamber”-style inquisition at the National Liberal Club to interrogate him about his opposition to Sutton LibDems’ incinerator. Inside Croydon has obtained a copy of the evidence submitted to this hearing by the Drages, and it paints a totally different picture to that given by John Drage to the council’s monitoring officer and chief executive.
The Drages changed their evidence for their party officials, compared with what they told the council’s monitoring officer and chief executive.
At the LibDem hearing, witness statements against Mattey were provided by councillors Ruth Dombey, Stephen Penneck, Jayne McCoy and Jean Crossby, as well as by Tom Brake.
In an email dated December 19, 2015, sent to Fiona White, the LibDem official presiding over the expulsion hearings, John Drage – referring to the incinerator as the “ERF”, or energy recovery facility – stated: “Cllr Mattey only knew about these links [to the Drummonds] since I had quite properly declared two social meetings with the Drummonds on the councillors’ register of interests back in late 2011 and 2012 and also quite properly declared a non-pecuniary interest when speaking on behalf of my ward residents at the development control meetings in 2013 that considered the ERF planning application.”
Clearly, this does not tally with the actual chain of events, with Drage making no such declarations until July 2012.
There are several problems arising from Drage’s change of story. It means that Drage broke the councillor standards rules by failing to record the November event in his register of interests within the 28 days required. The entry was made eventually in July 2012.
These changes of facts were never communicated to either Bolger or Crowe at Sutton Council, or to the SLWP. After conducting her inquiry, Crowe had submitted a report to the independent chair of the standards committee; they will have ruled based on the inaccurate details provided to Crowe, and not the version that the Drages offered up when trying to get Mattey kicked out of their party.
Crowe, in her report, looked to exonerate Drage (“Other than former Cllr Drage’s non-declaration of a relationship with Mr Drummond in 2011… no evidence has been provided to substantiate the claims of improper decision-making that may have been in breach of the Nolan Principles in relation to any links between Viridor Credits, Viridor Ltd and Sutton Council members,” she wrote), something which the standards committee chair accepted at face value.
Yet as the record of events show, the Drages dined with their old friend, the CEO of Viridor, on Thursday, November 3, 2011, and then without making any declaration of a non-pecuniary interest, voted at Sutton Council’s executive meeting on Monday, November 7, to ratify Viridor as the preferred bidder.
There is no suggestion that the Drummonds nor Viridor had any knowledge of the council and SLWP process that agreed Viridor as the preferred bidder, or even that John Drage was involved in that process. The fact that Drummond may have benefited financially from the deal, through substantial performance bonuses, for example, would be irrelevant as it seems certain he had no knowledge of Drage’s actions.
Equally, there is no suggestion that Drage’s friend, Tom Brake, had any knowledge of these actions.
The thing is, though, even though he failed to make any declarations in a timely manner, it seems that Drage was very much aware of how his position of influence, on the council and on the SLWP, must have appeared.
We know this, because Drage has admitted as much in an email.
In July 2015, Drage fired off an angry email to his former colleague, Nick Mattey, now an independent councillor for Beddington North. Mattey had asked Drage about his lack of declarations.
Drage wrote: “Once Viridor had been selected by the South London Waste Partnership as the preferred bidder [in September 2011], because I knew Mr Drummond, I agreed with then Cllr Colin Hall that it would not be appropriate for me to stay as a member of the Partnership.”
This agreement between fellow LibDem councillors, made in secret after the September meeting with Hall (who has since died), was kept from the SLWP and from Sutton Council by Drage. He never attended another SLWP meeting: he missed the meeting in January 2012, the next meeting was cancelled, then Councillor Roger Roberts took over the role alongside Hall.
Through an FoI process which Sutton Council tried to block – until an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office – Inside Croydon has acquired a recording of the “secret” part of the meeting of Sutton Council’s executive on November 7, 2011, at which members unanimously ratified Viridor as the preferred bidder for the £1billion contract.
In the recording, Drage can be heard moaning that in some wards, “leaflets were being distributed to stir up those concerns”.
The councillor suggested a campaign of information by Viridor was required to get the “right” message about the incinerator out to the public.
Tim Foster was elected as an independent councillor in 2018 in Beddington North, home of the incinerator. He told Inside Croydon: “I share the distress and concerns of many of Beddington’s local residents about the approval process for the incinerator and the apparent unwillingness of the council or any other authority to question that process.
“It is imperative that this matter is properly and independently investigated without delay.”
Green Party activist Shasha Khan, who challenged the planning decision for the incinerator in the High Court through a Judicial Review, said, “It was up to our legal team to unearth the links between Drage and Drummond prior to the Judicial Review. We requested and received documents from Sutton Council relating to the incinerator, but it turns out the smoking gun wasn’t in the holster of the council but may have been concealed by the Sutton Liberal Democrats.”
At the Sutton Council standards hearing into Drage’s conduct, held in September 2015, the LibDem committee members and the monitoring officer insisted that all the non-planning issues around the incinerator decision had been tested at two Judicial Reviews. This was untrue. There was only ever one such High Court case, where the true facts were not made available to the judge. The judge only looked at the planning issues. Shah subsequently faced a £5,000 legal bill.
Over the course of more than a decade, south London residents have been repeatedly misled and lied to by the major political parties over the issue of the Beddington incinerator. Out of power, borough politicians oppose the incinerator. In power, they do nothing to stop it.
In 2010, Croydon Tories lied to the electorate when they said that they would not allow an incinerator to be built in this borough, when they knew very well that a site had been chosen just on the other side of the Sutton boundary.
In his 2013 “Focus” leaflet, signed off by Drage and Brake, claimed that having the incinerator would reduce traffic on the notoriously jammed Beddington Lane.
In 2014, Tony Newman, the leader of Croydon’s Labour group, hinted that once in power, he would take steps to pull Croydon out of the Viridor deal. He never did. But Newman has now pledged to make Croydon carbon neutral by 2030, a target which will be impossible to achieve while paying for an incinerator burning 300,000 tons of rubbish annually.
The Conservatives in Sutton say that they oppose it, though they are a long way from getting their hands on the levers of power to do anything about it. Indeed, it was the Tory Mayor of London, Bullshit Boris Johnson, who gave the final go-ahead for the industrial-scale incinerator to be built.
The incinerator is backed by LibDems in Kingston. Labour-run Merton is also signed up to it. Burning rubbish is cheaper than other options, especially recycling. In the first year of testing the incinerator, it is clear that the Environment Agency has little, if any, control over the level of illegal, polluting emissions coming from the Beddington Lane incinerator.
There’s an irony that in Thursday’s election, Brake’s vote will almost certainly suffer as a result of the presence of the incinerator. Brake had a majority of 1,369 votes over the Tories in 2017. Now, it seems that stench surrounding the process that led to Viridor getting the £1billion contract has a worse odour than the stink that comes off the old landfill pits in Beddington.
In October, Inside Croydon put a series of questions about the contradictions in their accounts to John and Elaine Drage, copying in Sutton Council’s press office, the council chief exec, Helen Bailey, and the monitoring officer, Jessica Crowe.
None of them has responded.
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