STEVEN DOWNES on the man behind one of London’s biggest lobbying firms, a former senior figure at ‘the PR firm for despots and rogues’
In Southwark, activists who have been campaigning against a massive transfer of public property over to private developers have described their council offices as having “revolving doors”, seeing local authority staffers and councillors walking straight into the arms of lobbyists for big business.
The latest example to spin their way into potentially lucrative work for developers is Peter John, the leader of Labour-controlled Southwark from 2010 until 2020, and the chair of the pan-city organisation of local authorities, London Councils, from 2018 to 2020.
While he remains a councillor in Southwark, expected to represent the interests of the people of Champion Hill ward and the broader borough, John is now in the pay of the Terrapin Group as their chairman.
Terrapin has worked for many property developers and real estate investors, including Lendlease and Delancey, two of the biggest, who both landed hugely profitable schemes in Southwark, across the Aylesbury and Heygate estates and the Elephant and Castle. All were agreed while Peter John was the council leader.
Our resident lawyer, Ebenezer Grabbit, of the widely respected firm of solicitors Sue, Grabbit and Runne, asks us to point out here that there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with such a very cosy relationship between councillors, developers and their public relations companies.
Terrapin was founded in 2012 by Peter Bingle, who has been described as “the London lobbyist with ties to billions of pounds of gentrification”.
Before setting up his own firm, Bingle, a sometime Conservative Party councillor in Wandsworth, had spent a decade working in a senior role at Bell Pottinger, where he claims to have “created the best public affairs company in the UK”.
Others take a different view of Bell Pottinger.
The firm that was established by Tim Bell, the former trusted adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and collapsed amid scandal in 2017, to be described by the New York Times as the “PR Firm for Despots and Rogues”.
Bingle got out before Bell Pottinger’s implosion, and these days, in touting for business on behalf of property interests, he prefers to describe himself as “one of the most respected and experienced public affairs advisers in the UK”.
What does a lobbyist like Bingle do?
Well, according to an account on the Vice website, “He spends his days schmoozing local councillors in the capital’s finest restaurants in a bid to get his clients picked for big deals, picking up enough tabs for him to tweet that he’s ‘trying to end austerity singlehandedly’.”
According to Vice, between 2013 and 2017, Bingle organised 25 private meetings with councillors in four London boroughs (Haringey, Kensington, Wandsworth and Southwark).
“All these councils were on the cusp of awarding huge development contracts, including for the demolition and regeneration of thousands of Londoners’ homes. The councillors often didn’t declare any other meetings with any other developers, or anyone else except Bingle. In total, the meetings precede nearly £3billion of contracts, all of which went to one developer: Lendlease.”
Peter John’s own list of declarations on the Southwark Council website – from the time before he was on the lobbyists’ payroll – is dominated by hospitality provided by Terrapin or by Bingle personally. To what end is never disclosed.
The declarations extend back to the days before Terrapin existed, to 2011 when his hosts at the swanky Pont de la Tour at Tower Bridge were… Bell Pottinger.
Today, Terrapin’s client list is long and extensive. If he had his way, though, Bingle would not share this information.
In 2009, at an inquiry into parliamentary lobbying, Labour MP Paul Flynn asked Bingle (then at Bell Pottinger) if he agreed that the public has a right to know who is lining the pockets of lobbyists.
Bingle responded, “No, I do not. The public have no right to know who our clients are.”
Obviously, having a handful of serving councillors on the payroll could potentially help in that kind of work… And it is all above board and legal to do so.
Southwark activists 35 per cent (a reference to the Mayor of London’s target for affordable housing to be provided in new developments) have done some digging to check out Bingle’s and Terrapin’s client list in their own manor. It makes for instructive reading, particularly in terms of some of the deals struck by their local council when Peter John was its leader.
As they report, “In July 2010, just months after taking the reins at Southwark, Peter John signed a development agreement with Lendlease for the demolition of the 1,200 homes of the Heygate estate and its replacement by a private development with only 25per cent affordable housing – 10 per cent less than Southwark’s policy requirement – and with a minimum of social rented housing.
“In the event, Lendlease has built nearly 3,000 homes on the site, with just 100 at social rent.”
And you wonder why there is a housing crisis…
In pulling together a list of who Peter Bingle’s firm has worked for in recent years, it might be easier to compile a list of those major development companies that Terrapin has not represented.
The Public Affairs Board Register shows Elephant and Castle developer Delancey is one of Terrapin’s oldest clients, dating back to 2013. Lendlease was on Terrapin’s books from 2013 to 2017.
Other clients include Barratt Homes (2013 to 2017), Telford Homes (from 2019), Hollybrook Homes Ltd (2018 to 2020); Bellway Homes (from 2013); Avanton Ltd (2017 to 2019); Ruby Triangle Properties Ltd (2017 to 2019); A2 Dominion; Higgins Homes plc; Southern Grove; and Pocket Living.
And those are just a Terrapin clients’ list as far as developments in Southwark are concerned.
Clearly, some will be watching very closely to see what influence Bingle and Terrapin might wield if they were to take a closer look at Croydon and its cash-strapped council, with all those development sites up for sale and the Whitgift Centre CPO to be resolved. It seems unlikely that they are not already looking, though Stuart King maintains he will play no part in his new employers’ work in this area.
Today, King, provided Inside Croydon with a statement in which he maintained that he would have no role in any Croydon projects while working at Terrapin. Given King’s wide-ranging brief at the council, and Bingle’s firm’s spread of influence with developers, that could prove practically very difficult indeed.
Bingle’s “influence” has even extended to journalists.
He is known to be on good terms with Dave Hill, the ex-Guardianista behind the developer-friendly On London website.
Even by Hill’s own low standards, it was On London who last year conducted an especially fawning interview with Tony Newman, the Croydon Council leader, in which he was given an uncritical platform to deny that there was any possibility of the council going bust…
Within days, Newman’s misrule was over, a Report in the Public Interest imminent and the Section 114 notice on its way, and all despite Hill’s best efforts to shore up the failing regime. Hill just happens to be the brother-in-law of Councillor Sean Fitzsimons, who Newman put on £42,000 per year allowances to be the borough’s chair of the non-Scrutiny committee.
Bingle was the subject of Hill’s latest whitewash efforts earlier this month. Interviewed over lunch, it must have been an especially good one, or perhaps Hill’s recorder wasn’t working, because there are very few direct quotes reported from the subject of his adulation.
But this, towards the end of the puff piece, might ring alarm bells in parts of Croydon. According to Bingle, “all the outer London boroughs [should] look for some Green Belt land in their areas for redesignation for housing”.
Before he became council deputy leader, King had a council cabinet “job share” with Paul Scott on Croydon’s planning and development matters. One of the schemes that they put forward, was to build houses on a swathe of Green Belt land in the south of the borough. Faced with a public backlash, it was hastily withdrawn.
But watch this space… it might soon be concreted over.
Read more: Croydon deputy leader gets new job working for lobbyists
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