Developer paid Boris Johnson’s aide Sir Edward Lister £480,000

 

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.

ECOWORLD

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.

 

Airbnb: you can pay the mortgage but it means fewer home for locals

 

Is this the future for East Devon seaside towns or more likely the small picturesque villages – Owl? Two sides of the argument.

Woolacombe used to be a place of old-fashioned bed and breakfasts and a handful of hotels for those wanting a little more luxury. Now it is the land of Airbnb.

Steven Morris  www.theguardian.com .

There is a dizzying selection of properties on offer, ranging from single rooms in locals’ houses to snazzy beachside apartments with hot tubs.

You can rent a hut aimed at the budget surfer, a yurt with a compost toilet or a £1m house with stunning views of the waves crashing on to miles and miles of north Devon beaches.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said Emma Ward, who works for Gulfstream Surfboards in the village. “We rely on tourism in this area. Anything that gives more people the chance to come here has to be good for the area.”

When Ward packs up her board and wetsuit and heads for warmer climes she sometimes rents her home out through Airbnb – and finds a place to stay through the site at the other end. “It helps me fund trips and find good places to stay,” she said.

In years gone by, Woolacombe would have been pretty much deserted in the winter. Many of the B&Bs and hotels would have been closed and the restaurants and cafes shuttered.

This February half-term, however, it has been busy. The Red Barn, which looks out over the crashing waves, has been heaving with surfers and families. The cafes and fast-food restaurants have done good business.

It’s down, partly, to the fact that modern winter wetsuits allow surfing all year round. But most agree it’s also down to the likes of Airbnb, which provides flexible, affordable accommodation.

Steve Woodman, who runs the Londis store and sits on the parish council, said there were positives and negatives of Airnbnb.

“It’s good for the businesses that we have people coming here all year and it’s very good for those people who make money out of Airbnb. There are some locals here who rent their homes out for a few weeks in the summer and make enough to pay off that year’s mortgage.”

But houses and flats that might have made homes for locals are being snapped up by investors who can make a profit by renting them out via Airbnb and other sites.

“That means there are fewer places for local people to live,” said Woodman. “Property prices are extraordinary.” Houses on the esplanade with the finest views go for £1m or more. A tiny two-bedroom flat goes for around £200,000.

Woodman’s son, Andrew, let a room out in his home via Airbnb until he had children. “It went really well,” he said. “It was nice to have a bit of extra money. In the winter the locals used to have the place to ourselves. Now people come all year, which is good for the village.”

Others are more sceptical.

Debbie Hollin said she had used Airbnb for trips but did not think it was good for Woolacombe and the surrounding villages. “The community is dying because so many properties are holiday homes. The houses around me are all deserted for weeks on end. This used to be a lovely community but you don’t see that many local children around now.”

The spec in some of the Airbnb listings appears faultless. The feedback for an Airbnb in the Byron complex, for example, includes praise for the welcoming concierge team. Some Airbnbs in the Narracott block are advertised by a business based in Chelsea.

Malcolm Wilkinson, the lead member for coastal communities on North Devon council and a Woolacombe resident, said the face of tourism in the village had changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years.

“We have around 1,400 to 1,500 residents. In the summer that population swells to around 15,000.” He likes the concept of Airbnb. “Traditional B&Bs have just about died here. Airbnb fills that niche”

But he is sad it makes it harder for local people to stay in the village. “If you have a flat you don’t let it out to a local person earning £10 an hour – you rent it out for £1,000 a week.”

 The council is trying to help. The developers of Byron provided a pot of money for affordable houses – but so far no plot of land has been found to build those homes on.

It is not just down to Airbnb but Wilkinson regrets that the nature of the community has changed. For many years there was a sporting competition between Woolacombe and a neighbouring village. Residents competed at basketball, golf, swimming, surfing. “Now it’s hard to get a skittles team of six together,” said Wilkinson. “That is a shame.”

 

Flybe chief warns on regional routes if airline collapses

Flybe has renewed a plea to ministers to cut aviation taxes in next month’s Budget, warning that most of its routes were likely to be abandoned if the company collapsed. Flybe is understood to have sufficient financial resources to keep it operating until the end of March, but the company’s existence is likely to be imperilled at that stage if no deal has been secured.

Mark Kleinman  news.sky.com

Flybe has renewed a plea to ministers to cut aviation taxes in next month’s Budget, warning that most of its routes were likely to be abandoned if the company collapsed.

Sky News has obtained a letter sent by Mark Anderson, chief executive of Flybe’s parent company, Connect Airways, hailing the “crucial role” played by the airline in ensuring regional connectivity across the UK.

In the letter to the new business secretary, Alok Sharma, Mr Anderson says he is “doing everything possible to secure our long-term future – addressing our cost base and working with our key partners including UK airports that depend on our survival”.

His latest plea comes weeks before Rishi Sunak, the new chancellor, presents his first Budget, with reforms to Air Passenger Duty (APD) promised by Sajid Javid, Mr Sunak’s predecessor.

A source close to Flybe said that Mr Anderson’s letter had been prompted by concerns that the Treasury was “backsliding” away from an overhaul of APD.

The regional airline, which is responsible for almost 40% of all domestic UK flights and carries more than 9 million passengers annually, believes it is unfairly penalised by the APD system because the duty is levied on both legs of a regional flight.

Mr Anderson told the business secretary that 88 of its 120 routes are not flown by any other airline.

“If Flybe were to cease trading, only a small number of our routes are likely to be taken up by another carrier, almost certainly at reduced frequencies,” he wrote.

“Over 50% of our customers are business travellers who depend on a regular, convenient schedule.”

Flybe also employs more than 2,000 people.

The letter to Mr Sharma was sent last Friday, with separate negotiations between Connect and the government about a £100m loan on commercial terms appearing to have stalled.

Sky News revealed earlier this month that government officials were to present a range of options for the loan during talks with the company and its shareholders, led by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic.

One idea is for the government’s loan to rank above that of existing investors’ capital, while another would give the taxpayer security over many of the airline’s remaining unencumbered assets.

A third idea, comprising warrants that would convert the government loan into equity in a rejuvenated Flybe, is unlikely to materialise.

Flybe is understood to have sufficient financial resources to keep it operating until the end of March, but the company’s existence is likely to be imperilled at that stage if no deal has been secured.

“The likelihood of survival depends firstly on the APD reform,” said one source on Friday.

Contingency plans that would allow the government to continue operating Flybe routes seen as critical to preserving vital regional connections are being drawn up, according to rival airline executives.

In his letter to Mr Sharma, Mr Anderson said that Flybe had proposed “introducing a new domestic APD band set at £6.50 (half the current band A rate)”.

He added that adding new Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes, which receive public subsidy to make them viable, was also necessary.

Mr Anderson said Connect had “proposed that government apply PSOs to a range of existing intra-regional routes, providing immediate support for their continued viability through a new fund”.

The Flybe chief has insisted that the company is not seeking a bailout, and any deal agreed with ministers would require the airline’s shareholders to commit tens of millions of pounds in new equity.

However, the talks have sparked controversy across the industry, with Ryanair and British Airways’ parent, International Airlines Group, threatening legal action against the government for breaching state aid law.

Earlier this month, BA said it would step in to operate a Heathrow-Newquay route recently – and contentiously – vacated by Flybe.

Heathrow Airport’s chief executive has also intervened in the row over Flybe’s future, demanding urgent government action to preserve “lifeline routes” from Britain’s busiest airport.

Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, accused the Treasury of being “blindsided by billionaires”, asking him: “If these billionaire shareholders are not willing to put their hand in their own deep pockets to bail out the loss-making Flybe, then why is your government and HMRC [the tax authorities] giving them a bailout?”

The restructuring experts Alvarez & Marsal have been drafted in to advise the government on the terms of any loan.

Flybe’s inability to access a loan from commercial lenders has, however, provoked criticism that a loan from the government could be on such terms.