Flagship Tory council may turn red due to councillors’ cosy relationship with developers

Owl says: If every Tory council with cosy relationships with developers turned red there wouldn’t be any left!!! Tory/developer, horse/carriage!!!

“It is the Conservatives’ local government flagship, blue since its creation in 1965. But in Westminster, amid a growing row about the influence of property developers, next month’s local elections are starting to look a bit tight.

In the ward covering London’s West End, some of the priciest real estate in Europe, two of the three sitting Tory councillors have been ousted by the party after opposing a wave of new building, which they say is overwhelming the area.

One of the councillors, Paul Church, said he had “tried to stand up for the communities I was elected to represent against the dominance of property developers and their agents, patronage and power in Westminster” but he had been “bullied, silenced and threatened by their powerful allies. Local government shouldn’t be like this.”

The other, Glenys Roberts, who has represented West End for 19 years, said: “I have tried to find out why I was deselected and they won’t tell me, so I feel as if I’m in a Kafka novel.” She said she had protested against “too much demolition” in Soho, part of her ward, adding: “If you completely get rid of the loucheness and the interestingness, do you just get rid of Soho and the reasons that anybody would ever come there?

“These are the issues I was very deeply involved with. They [the council leadership] didn’t like me being involved with State of Soho [a local group that campaigns against overdevelopment], but I just wanted the best for my area and the people I represent.”

Soho, a small area made up mainly of 18th and 19th-century houses, faces almost 20 large development schemes. Seven involve significant demolition of historic buildings, including the former Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road, a plan described by Historic England as doing “substantial harm” to the Soho conservation area.

The row will reopen concerns about developer influence at Westminster council, whose former deputy leader, Robert Davis, accepted more than 500 gifts or freebies, 150 of them from developers, while chairing the committee that decided on some of their planning applications.

Even the council leader, Nickie Aiken, admitted to The Sunday Times: “I do recognise that there was an historic issue in Westminster with the perception of these relationships. To date I have found no evidence of any wrongdoing or impropriety… [but] Westminster city council under my leadership will reassure residents about the integrity of the planning process.”

Davis left the planning job last year and “stepped aside” as deputy leader last month after it was revealed that he had taken gifts, meals or hospitality 514 times in three years, including nine free foreign trips, tickets to dozens of West End shows and hundreds of meals at top restaurants including the Ivy, the Ritz and Sexy Fish. He referred himself to a standards investigation but denies any wrongdoing and has been selected to stand for re-election as a Conservative.

In Mayfair, another part of her ward, Roberts said that “a lot of the rules [the council] have for keeping conservation areas in the right proportions and all the rest of it were being totally overruled”.

She said that Davis had once told her to “shut up” about a development and a number of other councillors “have told me he has tried [to silence them]”.

A third councillor who has been deselected in a different ward said Davis had telephoned to threaten them with “consequences” for their council career if they publicly spoke against controversial planning projects in their ward.

Davis said last night that he “never discouraged anyone from raising legitimate objections or concerns” but had “advised Mr Church that it is often sensible to air concerns with officers and members prior to a committee hearing, so as to allow them to be carefully considered and, ideally, addressed beforehand”.

He “expressly” denied threatening anyone with any consequences for opposing a planning application.

Roberts also said pressure was put on Westminster’s planning officers to change their recommendations to favour certain schemes.

“I was rung up by one of the officers saying there were meetings being held behind the scenes, off the record, no minutes taken,” she said.

“He was asked to change his recommendation and he refused . . . [but] the recommendations were changed subsequently.”

Roberts did not accuse Davis personally of pressurising officers and Davis said he had never asked any officer to change a recommendation.”

Source: Sunday Times (pay wall)

Jeremy Hunt didn’t tell Standards Commissioner he had bought 7 flats from an “a cquaintance” who was also a Tory donor

“Jeremy Hunt received a “bulk discount” on seven flats bought from a Conservative donor, the Guardian can disclose, as parliament’s watchdog opened an investigation into the health secretary’s admission that he breached money laundering rules.

The health secretary was forced to apologise for failing to declare his part-ownership of a company, which bought the luxury seaside flats in Southampton.

Kathryn Stone, parliament’s commissioner for standards, received a complaint about Hunt on Friday. The commissioner’s website confirms that Hunt is now under investigation.

Guardian inquiries established that the 82-flat block, called Alexandra Wharf, was developed by Nicolas James Group, a south coast property firm owned and chaired by businessman and Conservative donor Nicolas James Roach.

Neither Hunt nor Roach agreed to disclose the value of the deal but a source close to the health secretary said he had received a “bulk discount” for buying multiple apartments.

A spokesperson for Roach said that all sales at Alexandra Wharf were at “open market value”, adding that the businessman’s political donations had been properly declared on the Electoral Commission website.

They added that the pair had known each other for “several years” but had no business relationship beyond the purchase of the flats.

A spokesperson for Hunt said: “The owner of the development is a long-standing acquaintance.

“Jeremy paid standard market rates which would have been available to anyone else making an equivalent purchase.

“As Jeremy has been clear from the outset, the rental income from these properties will be donated to charity.”

Roach has made more than £50,000 in donations to Hunt’s South West Surrey constituency office since 2011, mostly in the form of complimentary venue hire.

The pair were pictured together in 2011 at a party to launch a £60m hotel in Guildford, Surrey, that was developed by Nicolas James Group.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman for the committee on standards in public life said: “In terms of public perception of ministerial priorities, Hunt seems more concerned with maximising his personal interests rather than ensuring that there are good public services.

“On a local level, there does seem to be an incestuous relationship between a local donor and a local politician in a way which will make the public uneasy.” …”


Being a councillor: a public service or a feather-bedded job?

“The ceremonial head of a cash-strapped council is set to be given a £2,500 pay rise just weeks after a decision to shut the county’s youth clubs.

A meeting of Gwynedd council’s democratic services committee today recommended that the council chair should see their pay upgraded to “band 1” status.

The role – known in some areas as the county mayor – changes hands every 12 months and involves presiding over full council meetings and representing the authority at various functions in a civic capacity.

At present, the holder is afforded “band 2” status, meaning they would receive £21,800 in 2018/19.

But, if Gwynedd’s full council accepts the committee’s recommendation when it meets on May 3, the chair’s pay will increase to £24,300.

The committee’s findings come just a month after the authority decided to introduce a new youth service model, which will see all 39 existing youth clubs replaced by a single county-wide offering in a bid to save £270,000.

Cllr Charles Wyn Jones, who proposed the pay rise during this morning’s meeting, said: “Having fulfilled the role myself, I know that the council chair usually has to attend at least 40 functions a year, many of which take place in the daytime.

“I feel the title holder should be paid more than the committee chairs, simply due to the number of hours they have to put into the role.

“I know the role only lasts a year, but it involves putting in many hours.”

Cllr Dewi Owen, also a former council chair, echoed his sentiments: “Living in Aberdyfi and having to travel to functions in places such as Bangor, it meant having to stay over in bed and breakfasts and many hours of travel time in order to do the job properly.”

The new council chair, succeeding Cllr Annwen Daniels, will be selected by county councillors next month.

Meanwhile, all 75 Gwynedd councillors will receive a £200 pay rise to £13,600 a year, in line with the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales’ (IRPW) findings for the 22 Welsh authorities.

Questioning the panel’s findings, Menai Bangor councillor Catrin Wager said: “I do feel that at a time when cuts are being made, an extra £200 for every member is questionable.

“Is there anything we can do apart from accept this?”

In response, democratic services manager Vera Jones confirmed that members could choose to waive the automatic pay rise by informing the authority in writing.

There will be no change in the salaries of the council leader and deputy, which will remain at £48,300 and £33,800 respectively.

Members of the cabinet will be paid £29,300 a year, and £22,300 for committee chairs.

The final decision on member salaries will be formally rubber stamped during Gwynedd’s full council meeting on May 3.”


“PM among cabinet members earning money as a landlord”

“Nine cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are making more than £10,000 a year by acting as landlords, a Guardian analysis has found.

Following Jeremy Hunt’s failure to declare the purchase of seven luxury flats that he subsequently rented out, an analysis of the parliamentary register of MPs’ interests shows eight other members of the cabinet own and rent out a property.

The health secretary was forced in to an embarrassing apology on Friday after it emerged that he had failed to declare a business interest with both Companies House and the parliamentary register of MPs’ interests.

Hunt has amended the register, which now shows that he has a half share of a holiday home in Italy, a half share in an office building in Hammersmith and seven recently acquired apartments in Southampton.

Theresa May and Philip Hammond, who both live in Downing Street, rent out their personal homes in central London. Communities and housing secretary Sajid Javid also rents out property, while Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, rents out two properties, according to the register

The foreign secretary Boris Johnson, the international trade secretary Liam Fox, the minister without portfolio Brandon Lewis – who is also the Conservative party chairman – and the Welsh minister Alun Cairns also own and rent out a property, according to the register.

There is no suggestion that the ministers are in breach of the ministerial code. …”


“Council fails in appeal over FOI request and commercial prejudice”

“Hartlepool Borough Council has lost an appeal against a ruling by the Information Commissioner because it failed to provide evidence of what harm to commercial interests would be done by disclosing material dating from 2005 and relating to the transfer of ownership of Durham Tees Valley Airport.
In the First-Tier Tribunal General Regulatory Chamber (Information Rights), Judge Anisa Dhanji said neither the council nor property firm Peel had shown any convincing reason for keeping private details of the deal they did over the airport.

John Latimer had made a Freedom of Information request for papers relating to how ownership of 75% of the airport came to be transferred by the six Tees Valley local authorities to Peel.

Some information was provided but the council withheld the rest – though it later made further releases – and Latimer took his case to the Commissioner, who ruled in his favour.
Giving judgment in Hartlepool Borough Council v IC & (Dismissed : Freedom of Information Act 2000) [2018] UKFTT 2017_0057 (GRC), Judge Dhanji noted Hartlepool had not put forward any submissions or witness statements for this appeal.

She said: “It is not clear to what extent the council is still relying on prejudice to its own interests, but we entirely agree with the commissioner’s assessment…we do not find that the council has established that disclosure of the information would or would be likely to prejudice its commercial interests,”

Peel’s case asserted that disclosure could weaken its position in negotiations with potential new investors in the airport and could be used by competitors against it.

“What Peel has completely failed to do, however, is to support its assertions with evidence,” the judge said.
“There are no witness statements, and no evidence or even arguments to link the disclosure of any specific aspect of the information with any specific business interests that would or would be likely to be prejudiced by its disclosure.”

Peel had “failed to show the causal link between the disputed information and the claimed prejudice”, the tribunal concluded, ordering Hartlepool to send Latimer the information within 35 days.”


Full Judgment:

“There’s enough tax money to feed hungry children – it’s just in the wrong pockets”

” … Over the past two years, health bosses have charged £5.8m on taxpayer-funded credit cards to finance their lavish lifestyles.

Purchases included helicopter lessons, go-karting outings, bookings at five-star hotels, trips to cocktails bars, and stops at fast-food joints.

This behaviour shines light on a deep hypocrisy from health bosses, who on the one hand work to implement a sugar tax – effective today – to discourage taxpayers from consuming sugary drinks, and on the other hand use the same taxpayers’ money to fund their own trips to McDonalds.

Putting the hypocrisy aside, there is a wider issue here, of how taxpayer money is spent once it’s in the hands of the state.

We are always told that the solution to any given problem is more spending, and consequently calls to ramp up taxes naturally follow. But that argument fails down flat when nearly £6m that could have been used to top up a low-income parent of three, or go towards a health service we are perpetually told is “in crisis”, has been spent on public officials to live their weekends like rock stars.

The UK government is already spending around 40 per cent of GDP – the majority of that is from tax intake, but tens of billions are still borrowed from future generations.

There is no justification for increasing the burden on taxpayers by a penny more. There are already funds in the system that could help the most needy. They are just sitting in the wrong pockets. …”


Q: who audits the auditors? A: their pals

“The chief accountancy watchdog has hired lawyers to keep evidence confidential that might throw light on its contentious decision in 2013 not to investigate KPMG’s audit of HBOS.

Four of the auditor’s former partners were serving on the Financial Reporting Council’s conduct committee when it decided not to investigate their former firm’s role in the bank’s collapse. Another committee member had advised KPMG previously.

The FRC, which last week emphasised the importance of transparency in its workings, has appointed Fieldfisher, a law firm, to fight a tribunal appeal aimed at winning access to documents and emails under the Freedom of Information Act.

The regulator is under pressure to improve its investigatory processes after several corporate collapses where the auditors failed to spot problems. Last week Greg Clark, the business secretary, promised an independent investigation into the regulator.

Some concerned investors say that the FRC is soft on auditors because it has been “captured” by the accounting profession, with its board and decision-making committees liberally sprinkled with former Big Four accountants.

MPs described the regulator’s initial decision not to investigate KPMG as “a serious mistake”. Poor accounting and accounting rules have been cited as one reason why no one understood how bad the bank’s problems were until it was too late. The bank was rescued by Lloyds TSB with £20 billion of backing from taxpayers. Later £53 billion of its loans went sour as the extent of its reckless approach to creditors became clear.

The FRC belatedly investigated, only to find the auditor not guilty of any serious failings — triggering more astonishment from some MPs.

Margot Gibbs, a researcher originally backed by Greenpeace, is appealing against a decision by the Information Commissioner in November in order to establish how individual members of the conduct committee voted and whether there was any lobbying between KPMG partners and their former colleagues and advisers on the committee.

She also wants to challenge the FRC claim that, despite being a public body, it is largely exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The watchdog and the business department, its sponsoring ministry, have been fighting the public sector classification for 14 years.

The former KPMG partners on the ten-member conduct committee were Paul George, a partner until 1999, Sean Collins, one until 2009, Joanna Osborne, a partner until 2011, and John Kellas, one until 2004. In addition, Richard Fleck, its chairman, is a consultant with Herbert Smith, which used to advise KPMG.

The minutes of the meeting show that Ms Osborne and Mr Collins left when KPMG was discussed, according to a report into the affair published by the FRC in November last year. Mr Kellas stayed but “did not participate”. The report did not say what Mr George and Mr Fleck did, nor how anyone voted.

The FRC confirmed that it had appointed lawyers. “We took this approach, ie explaining why the request was out of scope and referring Ms Gibbs instead to information we had published in connection with her request, for consistency of treatment and fairness with all other FOI requesters whose requests are out of scope.”

Fines by the FRC last year were their highest ever at almost £15 million.

KPMG has been auditor to several leading British companies that have failed or come to close to failing, including Co-operative Bank, Carillion and Conviviality, the group behind Wine Rack and Bargain Booze.

The tribunal is due to hear the case on April 27.”

Source: The Times, paywall