CROYDON IN CRISIS: Council’s erstwhile deputy leader has been named among 75 councillors across the capital who are working for the property and development industry. By STEVEN DOWNES
Stuart King, who until Wednesday, at least, was the deputy leader of Croydon’s Labour-controlled council, has been named among dozens of “London’s most powerful councillors” who are also in the pay of the property and development business.
Campaigning website OpenDemocracy yesterday reported the troubling potential for multi-million-pound conflicts of interest among at least 75 senior elected councillors in the capital, and highlighted King and his part in the council’s loss-making sale of the Croydon Park Hotel.
All but 11 of those 75 councillors, OpenDemocracy reports, were standing for re-election yesterday. That includes Stuart King.
Back in November last year, after the sale had been pushed through as part of the cash-strapped council’s efforts to “sweat its assets” and hurriedly raise millions to plug the financial black hole in its accounts, Croydon were reluctant to identify who the lucky buyers were who snapped up the disused hotel site for £24.5million – £5million less than the council had paid when it was still a going-concern.
The hotel purchase was one of the dodgier deals agreed by the council under Tony Newman and Simon Hall, the discredited former council leader and his cabinet member for finance.
They managed to buy the hotel by paying more than the asking price, but without getting clearance for the purchase at full council.
OpenDemocracy has now confirmed that the Croydon Park Hotel’s latest owners are Amro Real Estate Partners. Having paid less than £25million for the town centre site, they already have plans for a £200million redevelopment.
And Amro just happen to be clients of Councillor King’s employers.
As we reported on Inside Croydon last November: “What is known about the lucky buyer is that they have been represented by the Terrapin Group, a developers’ lobbying firm.
“Since last April, a senior account director at Terrapin is Stuart King.
“This is the same Councillor Stuart King who is Croydon’s deputy leader and who since the council’s financial collapse last year has been the cabinet member for ‘Croydon renewal’, responsible for ‘assets management’.
“This includes the sale of hundreds of millions of pounds worth of public property. Including the Croydon Park Hotel.”
As OpenDemocracy reports this week, King’s employers, Terrapin, “…specialises in property and development in London, offering clients ‘targeted political engagement’…
“Records show that King, who earns £42,000 from his job as deputy council leader, had to withdraw from at least one meeting about the plans, citing a ‘conflict of interest’.
“King’s employment at Terrapin was fully declared in his register of interests, and lobbying rules were adhered to.
“He told OpenDemocracy: ‘I do not work on any Terrapin client work in Croydon as this would be a conflict with my role as a councillor in that borough.
“’The disposal of Croydon Park Hotel was a matter that fell within my cabinet portfolio of responsibilities. Once I became aware that Amro were one of those bidding for the site, I declared that interest and recused myself from all further involvement’.”
OpenDemocracy found that ahead of this week’s council elections, Councillor King’s real boss, Terrapin founder Peter Bingle, was flaunting his company’s attributes, and its many contacts in local authorities, to developers and property firms.
OpenDemocracy reports, “Our analysis of hundreds of council documents shows how scores of lobbyists and other workers for the sector simultaneously hold senior roles in local government, working in council cabinets or on the influential committees that are supposed to hold developers to account…
“London lobbying firms have offered advice sessions for developers, to help them navigate the political landscape.”
Bingle, they said, “took to social media to encourage developers to get in touch for political advice, saying: ‘Worried about the local elections next Thursday? Will your scheme be impacted by a change of political control? Have you been speaking to opposition councillors who might be in control on 6th May?'”
One of Bingle and King’s colleagues at Terrapin is Peter John, the group’s chairman.
John is the former Labour leader of Southwark Council. Last month, John was highly visible campaigning alongside Val Shawcross, Labour’s Mayoral candidate, in the build-up to Croydon’s elections.
OpenDemocracy found that of London’s 941 elected councillors ahead of yesterday’s elections, 13per cent of Conservatives had financial ties to the property industry, and 6per cent of Labour councillors.
“Financial interests were declared in each of these examples,” they report, “and there is no suggestion that lobbying rules were broken. But campaigners warned that having so many local councillors with ties to property development ‘does nothing to help the perception that the planning system favours industry over communities’.”
Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said: “Given the controversy often surrounding major planning decisions, it’s crucial to confidence in the process that they are made impartially and free from bias.
“To provide greater trust in local development, councils should not allow members to hold briefs where there is a clear tension between their public roles and private jobs.
“This is a ticking time-bomb for the lobbying industry.”
Property developers lobbying councillors, in particular members of planning committees, is a “normal part of the planning process”, according to the Local Government Association. But the LGA warns that this “can lead to the impartiality and integrity of a councillor being called into question, and so care and common sense must be exercised by all parties involved”.
The LGA adds: “The striking of this balance is, ultimately, the responsibility of the individual councillor.”
In Croydon, Stuart King was one of 15 Labour councillors who received special responsibility allowances under the discredited regime of Tony Newman which bankrupted the council who were standing for election again yesterday.
Before the election campaign, King, a councillor in West Thornton ward since 2014, had confided that he would step back from cabinet responsibilities under the new Mayor. But in recent days he appears to have had a change of mind: we might expect him to be handed a senior role next week if, as expected, Val “New Direction” Shawcross is named as Croydon’s first elected Mayor later today.
Read more: Croydon’s planners out-strip other boroughs in permissions
Read more: Council flogs off hotel for less than £29.8m it cost to buy
Read more: Council starts the biggest fire-sale ever seen in south London
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want 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
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- By having a comment section, we provide all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Details of how this works can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period