Southwark Lib Dems face questions over Ministry of Sound donations: 3 important points to consider

Southwark Lib Dem councillors and local MP Simon Hughes have been in the spotlight the past 24 hours following their decisio to oppose a planning application objected to by the Ministry of Sound, a prominent donor to the party. BBC News reports:

Political donations to the Liberal Democrats from a nightclub chain totalling almost £80,000 went undeclared as its councillors discussed a tower block development opposed by the firm, BBC London has learned.

The Ministry of Sound, in Elephant and Castle, south London, was fighting to prevent developer Oakmayne building a residential tower block nearby. The club feared noise complaints from the completed tower block would eventually lead to its closure.

But none of the three Liberal Democrat politicians who rejected the application declared that the party locally had been in receipt of donations from the nightclub – £21,000 at local level and £57,300 at national level. Technically, planning councillors do not have to declare donations to their party – even though they would have to declare attending a party at the club – because councillors are deemed not to benefit personally.

In light of the BBC investigation, lawyers for Oakmayne are writing to Southwark Council asking for the decision-making process to be re-run. A further £1,000 was donated to Simon Hughes, the local Liberal Democrat MP. Mr Hughes has also publically sided with the nightclub in the dispute, arguing that residential development in the area is inappropriate.

Three comments on this:

1) The BBC’s report is partial. Only right at the foot of the (long) piece do they allow a quote from Anood Al-Samerai, Leader of Southwark Lib Dems, which offers some much-needed context:

“We do declare who gives us money. But I agree, I was a bit concerned because they were big donations. I contacted the borough solicitor in advance of the meeting. He came to me with advice that we did not have to declare it. … It would certainly be helpful if the advice [from central government on declaring donations] was clearer. I’m in favour of anything that makes politics more transparent.”

That the councillors sought proper advice before the meeting is a fact the BBC fail to mention, presumably deliberately, and places their actions in a different light. Many will feel they should still have declared the donations in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. However, the BBC’s report implies they sought to cover the donations up, which is a very different thing.

2) Ask yourself ‘Whose interests are being served here?’ A property developer loses a planning application for residential development; suddenly there is extensive media coverage implying political impropriety. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to see who has been feeding the media the story that best plays to the ‘all politicians are crooks’ news agenda. Again, many will think it’s Southwark Lib Dems’ fault for placing themselves in this position — but the journalists might have been better advised to be a little more sceptical of the property developer’s motivations before choosing their side.

3) This is a reminder of the need to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest, even if there are none in reality. I am sure Simon Hughes and the councillors involved have acted totally properly throughout; but I’m a Lib Dem so it’s not my opinion which matters. Many of those who do read this story will think ‘there’s no smoke without fire’: the laziest cliche in the book, maybe, but if even the BBC buys it that should be enough to make us stop, think, and ask ourselves the honest question: how would this look in the eyes of a cynical journalist trying to sell a story?

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11 Comments

  • “This is a reminder of the need to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest, even if there are none in reality.”

    Why do you think there was no conflict of interest in reality? How could there not be, when an interested party had given such a huge donation to the local party? How could these Lib Dem councillors view the arguments objectively, given the circumstances?

  • LondonLiberal 8th Nov '11 - 3:10pm

    This is a story of a developer not getting his way and throwing mud at the elected representatives who acted properly and transparently throughout the planning process. The development industry does itself no favours with this sort of snide allegation.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Nov '11 - 7:01pm

    The Councillors clearly did not legally have a “personal and prejudicial” interest to declare. But if they had “declared” a non-interest they would in effect be declaring it and would have had to leave the meeting. Looks like bullying by the developer to me.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Dawson 8th Nov '11 - 8:11pm

    I am bemused. We do not curently control Southwark Council, do we, so presumably a number of other councillors from other parties opposed this development as well as the Lib Dems?

  • Yet another BBC non-story:
    Local authority refuses planning permission for a development which does not conform to the adopted Local Plan.
    Planning Officers recommend refusal & members agree with the officer recommendation to refuse.
    LibDem councillors had no pecuniary interest in the proposal & so had no interests to declare, in accordance with the law.
    Developer unhappy & attempts to smear the LibDems with the help of the supposedly neutral BBC. When his court case fails, I wonder if the BBC will give it (a real story this time) so much prominence?

    Of course they won’t. This is a ‘news’ organisation that managed to avoid mentioning the racist nature of Woolas’ campaign in Oldham & also avoided mentioning the Inquiry into the Oldham riots of the 90s which identified inflammatory anti-Muslim leaflets distributed by the BNP as a prominent factor.

  • I’m surprised at a council solicitor giving emphatic advice not to declare an interest. It’s usual IME for them to be more more qualified in their advice. Firstly because what to do is a matter for the individual councillor not the legal officer and secondly the test for a non-prejudicial personal interest is pretty low.

    Michael makes a good point though. It is pretty difficult for a councillor to check that person X hasn’t made a donation to the party as they could have made it corporately – or direct to an individual’s election campaign which wouldn’t show up on the PPERA records.

  • Jonathan Hunt 9th Nov '11 - 8:38pm

    IT IS PROBABLY pertinent that Southwark’s full planning committee has now granted planning permission to another developer to build a 22-storey block on the same site, but with only a tenth of Oakmayne’s proposed flats — 35, not 338. It obviously raises questions about the ownership of both companies, and of the site.

    By coincidence, Private Eye today reports a recent judgment by the court of appeal about a case involving another Southwark nightclub – the black-owned Imperial Gardens in Camberwell. Lord Justice Thomas said he could not reverse a decision by the high court, but he made his decision “with considerable reluctance”.

    Raising the issue of “corruption”, his lordship criticised the council for “exceptionally murky dealings”, including failure to consult the owners of an application to build flats three metres from the club, hiding from official investigations important expert witness reports “under the desk of a senior officer”, and the arrest of a planning manager by the Fraud Squad.

    Imperial Gardens was forced to close for the same reason the Ministry of Sound fears. However, Lord Justice Thomas says “there appears to be a very strong case for maladministration against Southwark”. Misfeasance is notoriously difficult to prove.

    The owners have persuaded the local government ombudsman to reopen the case as it was allegedly misled by “false evidence” from the council.

    As a former Southwark councillor who took up this and other cases of council corruption and discrimination, I do feel a degree of personal vindication. Especially as I was wrongly sacked from the Lib Dem group for daring to seek justice for constituents. Let’s hope the ombudsman finds in their favour this time round.

  • Hywel – perhaps rereading the passage would help. The Leader of the Group is quoted as saying “we did not have to declare it”. I am rather surprised, in the light of his comment that anything to make planning more tranparent would be helpful, that they did not in the end declare it. And in some ways, the comments about the advice have rather put them more in the firing line. Because, if their normal policy is to be transparent, why would they ask advice on whether they HAD to declare it, rather than declaring as a matter of course? If in doubt, declare, as the well used mantra goes.

    Personally, I have seen it with Tories, where their local party has in the past received regular declared donations from a developer who puts forward large numbers of applications – and hardly ever have those donations been declared in the Council Chamber. I think it’s dodgy.

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