Exclusive: Property tycoons gave Tories more than £11m in less than a year

Published last June but still relevant – Owl

Peter Geoghegan www.opendemocracy.net 

The Conservatives have received more than £11 million from some of the UK’s richest property developers and construction businesses since Boris Johnson became prime minister last July, an openDemocracy investigation has found.

Donations to the Tories from the property business increased significantly over the past year, with more than 120 individuals and companies connected to the sector giving money.

Just six leading Tory donors linked to the property sector gave more than £4.5 million since July – a four-fold increase in their donations from the final year of Theresa May’s premiership.

Other recent Conservative donors include controversial luxury property developer Nick Candy and West Ham United owner David Sullivan, who donated £75,000 ahead of December’s general election through a small property company he controls, according to figures from the Electoral Commission.

Commenting on openDemocracy’s findings, Transparency International’s Steve Goodrich said: “The corrupting influence of big money from UK politics must be removed before it irreparably damages trust in our democracy.”

“Once again, we see the Conservatives in hock to their wealthy donors”

Details of the Conservatives’ reliance on property tycoons comes as housing secretary Robert Jenrick is under fire after admitting unlawful “apparent bias” in over-ruling local officials who rejected Tory donor Richard Desmond’s £1billion Tower Hamlets housing development and fast-tracking the planning process saving the property developer £45 million.

Desmond – who had sat beside Jenrick at a £900-a-head Conservative fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel in London late last year – subsequently donated £12,000 to the Conservatives.

In a BBC interview defending Jenrick earlier this week, business minister Nadhim Zahawi said that voters who wanted to raise planning issues with their MPs could likewise go to a Conservative fundraiser.

“They will be sitting next to MPs and other people in their local authorities and can interact with different parts of the authority,” Zahawi told the Today programme.

Jenrick is not the only senior Tory facing questions about his links to property developers. Former planning minister Bob Neill is under investigation by the parliamentary watchdog for failing to mention that he was a paid consultant for a luxury hotel development that he lobbied for in his Kent constituency. Neill denies any wrong-doing.

Sue Hawley of Spotlight on Corruption said: “It’s time for a serious review of conflicts of interest in UK planning.

“It is entirely wrong that those with money can gain access to politicians that puts their interests above the rest of us,” she told openDemocracy.

Many of the property tycoons who have donated to the Conservatives in the past year would qualify to become part of the Leader’s Group of top donors where, for a minimum of £50,000 a year, they can attend quarterly meetings with the prime minister and senior cabinet ministers. Conversations are off the record.

A previous openDemocracy investigation found that Leader’s Group donors had given more than £130 million to the Conservatives since 2010. Previous commitments to publish lists of attendees have not been kept. Earlier this year, the Tories scrubbed details of previous Leader’s Group meetings off the party website.

Big money

Property has long been a major issue in British politics, and many of the biggest players in property and construction have been significant Conservative funders, especially since Boris Johnson became prime minister.

Malcolm and Eddie Healey – dubbed “East Yorkshire’s richest men” in the local press -have donated £1.1 million to the Conservatives between them since July.

Billionaire property developer Tony Gallagher gave the Conservatives almost three-quarters of a million pounds through his company Countywide Developments Ltd. A long-time Tory donor, Gallagher hosted David Cameron’s fiftieth birthday party at his Oxfordshire mansion in 2016.

Bridgemere UK, a property company chaired by one Steve Morgan, donated £1 million less than two weeks before Johnson won what he called a “stonking” majority in December’s general election. Morgan, who sold Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2016, retains a £245.6 million holding in house builder Redrow, according to The Sunday Times Rich List 2020.

Construction tycoon John Bloor – whose Bloor Homes did well from the Conservatives’ Help to Buy scheme – gave the Tory party £962,000 since July, through his company J.S. Bloor (Services) Ltd. The Solihull-based IM Group, founded by retired Tory peer Lord Edmiston, donated £388,000, much of it going to Tory candidates who took seats in Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’.

“It is entirely wrong that those with money can gain access to politicians that puts their interests above the rest of us”

Elsewhere, 33-year-old Mayfair property tycoon Jamie Reuben has donated £586,250.00 to the Tories since Boris Johnson became party leader. The Queen’s Park Rangers director, who is also heir to a huge family fortune, made donations only to Johnson himself in the previous year, amounting to £50,000.

The Conservatives’ top ten property donors gave more than £5.7million to the party since last July – compared to just £1.5million in the final twelve months of Theresa May’s premiership.

Other major Tory donors with major interests in property include John Beckwith, who gave a quarter of a million pounds to the Conservatives last year, Richard Caring, who gave over £217,000, and developer Jeremy Knight-Adams, who donated £100,000, as did hotelier Lord Rocco Forte.

New money

openDemocracy’s analysis found a number of figures linked to the property sector have emerged as Conservative donors for the first time over the past year.

Adeyheath Limited has given £260,000 since August. The property firm is controlled by Berish Berger, who is the director of more than 130 companies including the London-based Greaterheaven and Makepeace Investments.

In November, a company called Conegate Limited donated £75,000 to the Conservatives. It is ultimately controlled by West Ham United owner David Sullivan. As mayor of London, Boris Johnson was heavily criticised for his role in the deal that saw West Ham take over the Olympic stadium. The deal is estimated to have cost taxpayers in excess of £300 million.

In March, the Conservatives received £100,000 from luxury property developer Nick Candy. In 2016 a former business partner accused Nick Candy and his brother Christian of tax evasion. The brothers won the case in the high court but the judge remarked that “none of the protagonists emerge from this trial with great credit”.

The Conservatives have also received almost £25,000 from Bruce Ritchie. The founder of Residential Land was the co-chair of the controversial President’s Club, which was heavily criticised in 2018 after it emerged that young women at the men-only event were allegedly propositioned for sex and asked to wear skimpy clothes and sign non-disclosure agreements.

Property tycoon Christopher Moran gave the Conservatives £8,500 in January, his first donation since 2017. Moran – who flew Boris Johnson back from a DUP fundraiser on his private jet in 2018 – has been accused of turning a blind eye to sex workers in a Chelsea building he owns. (Moran denied any knowledge of the situation.)

Among other donors linked to the property sector are a number involved in care homes. Hampshire’s Churchill Retirement Living – a leading provider of homes to the over-sixties – gave £150,000.

The median value – the mid-point in the ranking – of a donation from the property sector to the Conservatives was £95,744.

But the party also received dozens of often smaller donations from companies with little obvious footprint that are registered at Companies House as being involved in property or real estate. The cumulative value of these donations runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

‘Beholden’

Steve Goodrich, senior research manager at Transparency International, said: “When political parties become heavily reliant on a small number of big donors it creates the perception, and quite possibly the reality, they are beholden to narrow sectional interests.

“Our research has found there’s a deep public suspicion that those with the deepest pockets wield outsized and undue influence over decision-making in Westminster.”

Reacting to openDemocracy’s findings, the Scottish National Party MP Martin Docherty-Hughes accused the Conservatives of being “in hock” to wealthy donors.

“This is yet more evidence of the dependence of the Conservatives on rich backers that will only increase concerns about ‘cash-for-access’ in British politics. What do these donors get for their money? Surely the public has a right to know?”

Docherty-Hughes criticised Boris Johnson for refusing to release a report into Russian interference in British politics that is widely expected to name a number of Tory party donors with links to the Kremlin who have stepped up their donations in recent years.

“I thought when the Tories delayed publication of the Russia report it was because they wanted to avoid the embarrassment of showing the extent to which Russian oligarchs had infiltrated the Conservative Party.

“Now I’m beginning to wonder if it is because they don’t want comparisons drawn with their own increasingly oligarchic way of governing, where normal planning laws are for the little people and the rich get to the front of the queue,” Docherty-Hughes said.

When asked by openDemocracy about previous donations, a Conservative Party spokesperson said: “All reportable donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

This piece was edited on June 29 to include updated figures from the Electoral Commission.