Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton Council has ruled that it cannot afford to carry out an official, lawyer-led investigation into the misconduct of three LibDem councillors who libelled a local businessman and community sports club in one of their party leaflets.
This is the same LibDem-controlled Sutton Council that in the past couple of years thought nothing of spending a total of more than £45,000 on expensive legal briefs over another councillor who had been asking too many awkward questions about the council’s dodgy heating network company.
Funnily enough, in this other case, the councillor concerned was not a member of Sutton’s ruling Liberal Democrats.
Inside Sutton reported last month how Jill Whitehead, Jake Short and Chris Williams, FibDem councillors for Carshalton Central ward, had eventually issued a public apology to Carshalton Athletic FC (“We apologise the [sic] club, its members and all the residents who were misled by our incorrect statements”).
The FibDem councillors issued that statement only after they were threatened with legal action over their party’s newsletter sent to local residents which claimed the club wanted to extend its licensing arrangements, including adding “adult entertainment”.
None of which was ever true.
The councillors offered the lamest of excuses for their dodgy leaflet, claiming it was because of a “mistake in reading the application” to the licensing committee.
Which some have said is an outright admission of incompetence: Williams and Short are both members of the licensing committee, with Short getting an extra £9,800 of Council Tax-payers’ money each year as a special responsibility allowance for chairing that committee.
None of the three councillors, despite admitting their fault and incompetence, have resigned.
The Carshalton councillors’ false and arguably malicious leaflet was just the latest incident in a 10-year campaign of harassment – described as a “vendetta” – carried out against the football club.
Following the latest incident, the club’s owner, Paul Dipre, filed an official complaint to Sutton Council about the misconduct of the trio. Given the admission of fault by Whitehead and her conies, it would have appeared to be a straightforward matter for the council to deal with under its Code of Conduct and the Nolan Principles of conduct in public life.
The council’s response to Dipre, when it arrived, fobbed him and the football club off with the somewhat feeble excuse that a formal inquiry into the conduct of Whitehead, Short and Williams would not represent best value for Sutton Council Tax-payers.
All this is in stark contrast to the money-is-no-obstacle approach that the LibDems on the council have adopted in their dealings with another elected councillor, Nick Mattey.
Mattey is an independent councillor for Beddington North ward and a long-time opponent of the polluting Viridor incinerator at Beddington.
In 2019, the council went to court, spending around £21,000 of tax-payers’ money on legal firm Bevan Brittan to try to block Mattey’s request, made under the Freedom of Information Act, for access to a council-commissioned financial review of the business model for SDEN. Mattey’s FoI request had the backing of the Information Commissioner.
Sutton Decentralised Energy Network Ltd is the council-owned heating company which is supposed to supply heating and hot water generated from the Beddington incinerator. The council had used the SDEN financial review and business plan – commissioned from KPMG at a cost of another £30,000 – to help it secure £3.2million in loans from the Public Work Loans Board.
The KPMG report provided Sutton and their colleague councils in the South London Waste Partnership, including Croydon, with the case for the economic viability of SDEN, which in turn was used to help justify building the £210million incinerator.
SDEN’s heating was supposed to be worth about £6million per year. The reality is that it has never got close to achieving those financial goals.
Despite spending thousands more of public money on legal fees to block the release of the 2017 report, the court sided with Mattey and the Information Commissioner and ordered Sutton Council to release the document. Inside Sutton published the report in full a year ago.
Bevan Brittan has been enjoying some good business at public expense thanks to Sutton, Viridor and the Beddington incinerator.
Back in 2014, the firm was retained by multi-billion-pound firm Viridor to argue their case when a local environmental activist, Sasha Khan, attempted to halt the incinerator development by taking the matter to the High Court for Judicial Review.
Khan needed to raise £30,000 through public donations and crowdfunders just to get the people’s case into court. Sutton Council, as the defendants, and the South London Waste Partnership, as an interested party, just used public money to pay their legal bills.
Khan’s case depended on the conflicts of interest at the heart of the unaccountable SLWP and Sutton Council, the planning authority for the incinerator.
John Drage, once the deputy leader of Sutton LibDems, had been a councillor on Sutton’s planning committee and a committee member of the SLWP, which awarded a string of contracts to the company and ultimately named Viridor as their preferred bidder for a £1billion, 25-year incinerator contract.
While all this was being discussed, Drage never once mentioned that he also just happened to be a life-long friend of Colin Drummond, the chairman of Viridor.
This matter, and the £275,000 that Viridor’s charity arm bunged to the Wallington church that was attended by Drage, and his wife, Elaine Drage (a senior official in the local Liberal Democrat Party), never managed to get raised by Khan’s lawyers during the Judicial Review.
When the judge, Mrs Justice Patterson, ruled in favour of Sutton, Viridor and the SLWP, the nice people at LibDem-controlled Sutton Council then went after Khan for a £5,000 costs.
In the past nine months, Sutton Council has been throwing yet more public money at Bevan Brittan, once again in a cause of defending a LibDem councillor while pursuing Mattey with a vengeance.
It is suggested that Sutton have paid £25,000 to the legal eagles towards a complaint made by LibDem Wandle Valley ward councillor Ben Andrew against Mattey, after residents in New Mill Quarter raised their own action against “Bogus Ben” for his failures to act on their behalf over repeated issues with their homes heating system – which is supposed to be provided by… you’ve guessed it… SDEN.
“The long-suffering residents of New Mill Quarter have decided that Ben Andrew should feel the heat, because they for certain haven’t been supplied with a reliable heating system,” according to one resident.
“And because of that, Andrew and his LibDem pals at the council have gone to great expense – using our money, naturally – to try to run some kind of distraction counter-action against Nick to try to shut him up.”
The resident added, “Thing is, Nick’s been on the council for seven years now – even the tin-eared LibDems should realise he is not going to drop the issue of the corrupt process that ended up giving this part of south London polluted air for generations to come and Viridor with a £1billion contract.”
Read more: Caught Short: ‘incompetent’ licensing chair told to resign
Read more: Sutton heating ‘disaster’ has residents seeking compensation
Read more: SDEN: A timeline of council bungling and sky-high fuel prices
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