A councillor at the centre of the row with more than a thousand residents in the ward he is supposed to represent is now under formal investigation by his own political party over his conduct towards a member of the public, Inside Croydon has discovered.
Ben Andrew is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Wandle Valley ward in Sutton, the area which includes New Mill Quarter, where more than 400 “luxury” homes have their heating and hot water supplied by SDEN, the council-owned heating network which has been roundly criticised for being too costly and entirely unreliable.
After two call-outs for the London Fire Brigade in recent weeks and a dozen power outages suffered by the 1,000-plus residents over the past 12 months, the Barratt-built NMQ suffered its latest heating problem on Friday.
The heating system to the development was supposed to have been powered by the controversial Beddington incinerator.
Despite extensive, and expensive, pipeworks to the housing development at Hackbridge, the polluting incinerator has never provided any heat or hot water. Instead, the New Mill Quarter homes have had to depend on three increasingly over-worked gas-fired boilers provided by SDEN. Engineering reports suggest that at least eight such boilers should have been installed for a development of this size.
The residents’ association lost patience last year with Andrew and his councillor colleagues – Hana Zuchowska and Vincent Galligan – banning them from the housing development after accusing “Bogus Ben” and the LibDems of having “wilfully published and hand-delivered information which he knew to be wrong” in their party Focus leaflets.
Now, Andrew is at the centre of a formal complaint to his national party from Sheldon Vestey, the chair of the NMQ residents’ association, following claims made by the councillor publicly which, despite requests from an independent adjudicator, he has not been able to substantiate.
In a preliminary adjudication report for the Liberal Democrats which was handed down just before Christmas, barrister Jeffrey Jupp wrote, “I have decided that the complaint is not too inconsequential to be referred to a Complaints Panel or for an Expedited Complaints Procedure or for Informal Resolution.
“I have reached this decision because it is clear that Mr Andrews [sic] has made the allegations on a number of occasions and there is not one single incident but rather there is repetitive conduct.”
That “allegation” is, in fact, several complaints: Vestey says that Andrew made unfounded claims that the resident had threatened him and, according to Jupp’s report, “launched attacks against him” and that Andrew, “repeated these unfounded allegations on social media and encouraged others to repeat these unfounded comments”.
In his report for the LibDems, Jupp says, “I have decided that the complaint does relate to matters which risk bringing the party into disrepute. I have reached this decision because: There is no doubt that Mr Andrews [sic] has made allegations that Mr Vestey has a personal and strong dislike of him and that Mr Vestey has personally attacked him.
“He has made these allegations several Facebook posts and messages.
“Despite being given the opportunity to do so Mr Andrews [sic] has not (yet) provided his reasons for making these allegation [sic]. If Mr Andrews [sic] has made unfounded allegations of this nature against a member of the public, then it could bring the party into disrepute.”
The evidence accumulated against Andrew includes statements made by the councillor, either on social media or in emails to other councillors or local residents, and in private messages on Facebook.
Despite repeated claims of being subject to “attacks” (“Sheldon clearly does attack me a lot, sometimes personally, and it’s pretty unpleasant”, is typical of what Andrew has told residents), the party’s adjudicator said that the councillor was unable to provide anything to substantiate his claims.
Vestey has suggested that, in fact, it has been him who has been subject to a co-ordinated and often vicious campaign of vilification, including attempts to discredit him with charitable bodies that the resident volunteers with. In one private Facebook group, thanking local activists who had helped to disseminate some of the councillor’s claims, Andrew wrote, “Haha thank you so much…. I gather I may owe lots of you drinks as well”.
Vestey says that his employers have been sent complaints and that his wife has also received anonymous threats of physical harm to her work email. Vestey has even reported criminal damage and attempts to intimidate him to the police, after screws were pushed into the tyres of his car parked close to his home. Inside Croydon has seen no evidence linking these incidents to Andrew.
Sutton Council, meanwhile, have told Vestey that there is nothing that they can do to prevent Andrew from being in contact with him.
In his adjudication, Jupp has told the LibDems that they need to carry out a full investigation into the conduct of their councillor.
“I have decided that a separate investigation or the oral evidence of witnesses is required,” Jupp wrote, “and I have reached this decision because Mr Andrews [sic] has not explained why he has made the allegations he has made.
“It may be that he has perfectly good and sound reasons for raising issues about Mr Vestey’s conduct towards him and if so that will be the end of the matter.”
Andrew was not answering his Tesco mobile when called by Inside Croydon today.
Vestey declined to comment in any detail on an on-going investigation but he did say, “I have also been forced to serve papers for libel against Councillor Andrew, interestingly, it seems with Sutton Council funding his defence.
“Previously I was trying to work with the councillor over our district heating problems, until he published information he knew to be wrong and then proceeded to publish mistruths about me when this was highlighted.”
Read more: SDEN: A timeline of council bungling and sky-high fuel prices
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