Possible conflict of interest over payments from property developer to PM’s chief adviser. The immediate context of this story concerns the missing, unaffordable, affordable housing. However as reported earlier, a white paper on planning reform is expected in the coming weeks. Johnson is clearly in the mood for bold, high-risk policies, with few controls. Councils could be reduced to mere administrators of the system, banned from taking a view on any scheme no matter how awful. With advisers like this, it doesn’t look good to Owl.
George Greenwood, Emanuele Midolo, Lucy Fisher www.thetimes.co.uk
Boris Johnson’s chief adviser has been accused of a possible conflict of interest over payments of nearly half a million pounds he received from a luxury property developer, The Times can reveal.
Sir Edward Lister, the prime minister’s chief strategic adviser in Downing Street, was paid the six-figure sum by the Malaysian property company EcoWorld between 2016 and 2019 while he was also chairman of Homes England, a government body that funds affordable housing projects.
Despite Sir Edward’s role at the quango, just 7 per cent of EcoWorld’s UK properties were classified as affordable, according to its latest annual report. Affordable housing is cheaper than market rates, but more expensive than council housing.
Sir Edward’s consultancy fees, totalling £487,000, far exceeded the annual salary of £68,000 he was paid by Homes England. Sir Edward, 70, resigned from both roles when he entered No 10 with Boris Johnson last July.
While senior civil service appointees are required to declare their outside interests, they are not legally bound to disclose payments received from these interests.
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said the payments looked “like a major conflict of interest”.
“[Sir Edward] had a duty not to put himself in a conflict of interest situation,” he said.
Clive Betts, chairman-elect of the House of Commons’ housing select committee, said: “There are a lot of questions to be asked. It feels very wrong that someone in charge of allocating resources to build housing, including affordable housing, has this arrangement with a developer.
Known as “Steady Eddie,” Sir Edward has long been a Johnson ally, having been appointed as Mr Johnson’s chief of staff during his tenure as mayor of London. He also served as deputy mayor for planning.
Sir Edward was appointed chairman of Homes England on June 17, 2016. Two weeks later he became a director of the EcoWorld subsidiary, Eco World Management & Advisory Services (UK). He declared his directorship of EcoWorld and a consultancy through which he received payments, but not the amount he was given. There is no legal requirement to declare income from declared interests.
As London’s deputy mayor, Sir Edward approved a development at Barking Wharf despite City Hall officers raising concerns that it included no affordable housing, in breach of London guidelines. Payments were made by the developer in lieu of affordable housing, a common practice. Barking Wharf was owned by the developer Willmott Dixon when it received the green light. It was bought by EcoWorld in 2017.
The forthcoming directorship with EcoWorld was not discussed during Sir Edward’s appraisal by the housing select committee before his appointment as chairman of Homes England. When asked about potential conflicts of interests, he responded that he had “always been close” to the property industry, “so conflicts can arise”.
“I know how to handle that,” Sir Edward said, adding: “I understand what I should do, how I should do it and to declare everything properly.”
A government spokesman said: “Edward Lister followed all the appropriate processes when declaring his interests as the chair of Homes England including his consultancy payments.”
EcoWorld said Sir Edward’s directorship and involvement were fully recorded in the Homes England register of interests, that it met all of its planning requirements, and that it had not been formed when permission was granted on the Barking site.
Homes England said Sir Edward declared his interest in EcoWorld appropriately and it was not considered to be a conflict of interest as it concerned housing in London, which it said was mainly the responsibility of City Hall.
Behind the story
Britain has had eleven housing ministers in ten years (Oliver Wright writes). This is perhaps not ideal for an issue that all parties believe is critical but which has proved stubbornly difficult to address.
The Conservative manifesto commits the government to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. It is still a long way off meeting the target. In the last full year for which figures are available, 169,000 homes were completed, of which about 30,000 were social housing.
It was this discrepancy that led to a public row between Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, and Esther McVey, who was dismissed as housing minister this month.
They clashed over whether government money should be spent helping people get onto the housing ladder or on building rentable social housing.
In what was billed as a “class war”, Mr Jenrick, a multimillionaire, favoured the former while Ms McVey, who spent time in care in her childhood, argued for the latter on the basis that investing in social housing was more important to new Conservative voters in the north and Midlands.
Private developers are obliged to provide a proportion of affordable homes in any new development. This is meant to be 30 per cent but many developers use “viability assessments” to negotiate down the number by arguing that the requirement would adversely affect their profit margins.