The Grenfell inquiry must feel the collars of the developers carving up our cities

The revolving door connecting politicians with lobbyists clearly helps them, but does it benefit us?

Anna Minton is a housing writer and author of Ground Control: fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city

The community of North Kensington is demanding that the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire be widened in scope. It must, local people say, “seek to understand how residents’ voices have been systematically ignored for so long”. On the other side of London, Haringey residents took to the streets last week, protesting at their council’s plans for regeneration.

To understand why people feel their voices are not being heard, it is essential to investigate the environment in which politicians and developers operate. Local government has a history of corruption that includes the jailing of the Newcastle council leader T Dan Smith in the early 1970s, and the illegal decisions made by Shirley Porter in the Westminster “homes for votes” scandal in the 1980s.

Today such criminality is rarer. Instead, we have a concerning culture of cronyism that, while not illegal, suggests a lack of accountability. From the housing minister down to the local councillor, elected politicians now routinely rub shoulders with property developers, house builders and commercial lobbyists. This is no accident. Politicians’ decisions have an impact on companies’ ambitions, whether they are reviewing planning applications, setting affordable housing targets or “regenerating” whole areas. Bluntly, companies want these decisions to go their way. Develop connections with the decision-maker and you can “strip out risk”, in the words of one lobbying firm.

The politicisation of planning has come with the growth of the regeneration industry. While once planning officers in local government made recommendations that elected members of planning committees generally followed, today lobbyists are able to exert far greater influence.

It’s not easy to see into this world, but there are traces in the public domain. Registers of hospitality, for example, detail some of the interactions between councillors and the commercial property business. Take a week in the life of Nick Paget-Brown, the Kensington and Chelsea leader who resigned in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. In October last year he had lunch at the five-star riverside Royal Horseguards Hotel courtesy of the property giant Willmott Dixon. The previous evening he had been at a reception put on by the business lobby group London First, whose membership is dominated by property and housing firms. He had breakfast with the Grosvenor Estate, the global property empire worth £6.5bn, and lunch at Knightsbridge’s Carlton Tower Hotel. This was paid for by the Cadogan Estate, the second largest of the aristocratic estates (after Grosvenor), which owns 93 acres in Kensington, including Sloane Square and the King’s Road.

Image result for rock feilding mellenTory in charge of Grenfell Tower refurbishment investigated TWICE over his role: Rock Feilding-Mellen was probed after Kensington and Chelsea Council approved a scheme to lease a library building to a prep school at which his children were on the waiting list

Rock Feilding-Mellen, the councillor in charge of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, who has stepped down as the council’s deputy leader, had his own list of engagements. As the Grenfell Action Group noted earlier this year, he was a dinner guest of Terrapin, the firm founded by Peter Bingle, a property lobbyist renowned for lavish hospitality.

Bingle is also a player in the other big regeneration story of recent weeks: Haringey council’s approval of plans for its HDV – Haringey development vehicle. This is a “partnership” with the Australian property developer Lendlease, a lobbying client of Terrapin’s. The HDV promises to create a £2bn fund to build a new town centre and thousands of new homes, but local residents on the Northumberland Park housing estate, whose homes will be demolished, are vehemently opposed. The Haringey leader, Claire Kober, has lunched or dined six times at Terrapin’s expense.

Nick Paget-Brown, leader of Kensington and Chelsea council.
Nick Paget-Brown, former leader of Kensington and Chelsea council.

In Southwark, just as in Haringey and Kensington, there is a revolving door between politicians and lobbyists. The former leader of Southwark council, Jeremy Fraser, went on to found the lobbying firm Four Communications, where he was joined by Southwark’s former cabinet member for regeneration Steve Lancashire. Derek Myers, who until 2013 jointly ran Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham councils, is now a director of the London Communications Agency, a lobbying agency with property developers on its client list. Merrick Cockell, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea until 2013, now chairs the lobbying firm Cratus Communications, which also specialises in property lobbying. In Westminster, the hospitality register for the last three years of its deputy leader, Robert Davis – chair of the council’s planning committee for 17 years – runs to 19 pages.

Cities other than London and rural areas also provide examples of worrying relationships. In East Devon a serving councillor was found in 2013 to be offering his services as a consultant to help developers get the planning decisions they wanted. In Newcastle a councillor who worked for a lobbying company boasted of “tricks of the trade” that included making sure planning committees included friendly faces.

Meanwhile the culture of regular meetings and socialising does not stop with councils. The diary of David Lunts, head of housing and land at the Greater London Authority for the first three months of 2017, reveals a lunch in Mayfair with Bingle, a VIP dinner laid on by a London developer, another meal paid for by a housing giant, and dinner on Valentine’s Day with a regeneration firm. Consultants and a developer furnished him with more meals before he headed off to Cannes for Mipim, the world’s biggest property fair. He also had dinner with Rydon, the firm that refurbished Grenfell Tower.

Further up the food chain, it was only because of Bingle’s boasts that we heard of a dinner he gave the then local government secretary, Eric Pickles. Held in the Savoy’s Gondoliers Room, it was also attended by business chiefs, including one who was waiting for a planning decision from Pickles’s department. The dinner was never declared on any register of hospitality because Pickles said he was attending in a private capacity.

Lunt’s former colleague Richard Blakeway, who was London’s deputy mayor for housing until last year, and David Cameron’s adviser on housing policy, became a paid adviser to Willmott Dixon. He is also on the board of the Homes and Communities Agency, the government body that regulates and invests in social housing. Its chair is Blakeway’s old boss, the former London deputy mayor for policy and planning Ed Lister, who is also a non-executive director of the developer Stanhope.

The MP Mark Prisk, housing minister until 2013, advocated “removing unnecessary housing, construction and planning regulations” as part of the government’s red tape challenge. He became an adviser to the property developer Essential Living, eight months after leaving office. Prisk advises the firm on legislation, providing support for developments and “brand” building. Essential Living’s former development manager Nick Cuff was also a Conservative councillor and chair of Wandsworth’s planning committee. A colleague of Cuff’s, who spent 30 years in the south London borough’s planning department, now works for Bingle’s lobbying firm, Terrapin.

This is the world that Kensington’s Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen, Haringey’s Kober and countless other council leaders inhabit. Socialising between these property men – and they are mostly men – is used to cement ties, and the lines between politician, official, developer and lobbyist are barely drawn. This culture, and the questions of accountability it raises, must be part of the public inquiry into Grenfell. It is perhaps no surprise that the government doesn’t want it to be.

Tamasin Cave, a director of the lobbying transparency organisation Spinwatch, contributed to this article

Anna Minton is a housing writer and author of Ground Control: fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city

European Parliament approves ban on pesticides in environmentally-sensitive areas

The European Parliament on 14 June 2017 endorsed a ban on the use of pesticides on environmental sensitive areas.

Ban on pesticides on sensitive areas
by John Swire on June 15, 2017

A group of MEPs in the European Parliament failed to block a European Commission proposal to ban the use of pesticides on ecological focus areas.

Under the approved legislation, farmers who receive subsidies from the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for improving biodiversity on land set aside for nature conservation will no longer be allowed to spray pesticides there.

Farmers with arable land exceeding 15 hectares must ensure that at least 5% of their land is set aside for nature improvement. This includes measures that affect biodiversity such as field margins, fallow land, buffer strips and hedges and trees.

It is up to national governments to draw up a list of ecological focus areas, based on a common EU definition, and taking national circumstances into account.

Before the final vote in parliament, 363 MEPs had backed a resolution seeking to dismiss the pesticide ban, just 13 short of the 376 required for a majority.

Peoples’ Food Policy –

This policy may been seen as being especially useful at a time when there is a pretty blank slate in front of us post-brexit, which big business will be ready to take over if we are not. The preparation of this originally came out of the food sovereignty gathering in Hebden Bridge in Nov 2015, and was subsequently developed by a team. There was a web-based invitation for anyone to run workshops, according to a framework and to upload what came from them.

Now the policy has been produced as a 53 page doc.

Note that the name of this initiative was changed from ‘national food policy’ to ‘people’s food policy’.


Defra secretary Michael Gove indicates departure from largess of subsidies to large landowners & refocus on environment & countryside stewardship in post-brexit UK farm subsidy system

…a flurry of sweeteners for those of us who cast a critical glance on social and environmental justice and sovereignty issues (Gove has even mooted the end of live animal export). We will assuredly hear avowed assurances on how post-brexit the UK will protect our food and animal welfare standards to extinguish any notion that the UK will capitulate to the lower environmental standards of the USA in any future trade deal, but brace yourself for a more subtle and insidious outline of his views on Agricultural-technology and “innovation” in tandem with Liam Fox’s preparations for new international trade deals across the world, with biotech an essential component of that.

The Royal Norfolk Show 2017: Defra secretary Michael Gove hears Brexit priorities from East Anglian farmers
by Chris Hill
PUBLISHED: 28 June 2017
Source: The East Anglian Daily Times

Environment secretary Michael Gove said he was in “listening mode” to understand the Brexit concerns of East Anglia’s farming community during his visit to the Royal Norfolk Show.

The cabinet minister acknowledged he is “new to the world of farming”, but keen to hear the views of farmers as he was shown the region’s latest agri-tech and science developments at the Innovation Hub, and met local producers in the food hall.

Many of the issues discussed revolved around the nation’s looming departure from the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which will demand new policies to be written which will dictate farmers’ ability to trade and compete, the degree to which they are financially supported, and their ability to recruit seasonal migrant workers.

“I’m listening,” he said. “The single most important thing I can do at this stage is to listen so I can be an effective advocate for farming in government.

“The first thing to say is I have friends in Norfolk. I have a friend who farms just outside Great Yarmouth and a friend who farms near King’s Lynn. So I already have some familiarity with the issues.

“The other great thing is that people have been completely candid with me today and I think that their concerns and hopes boil down to a number of specific areas.

“One is what would be the nature of subsidy and support in the future, and as we leave the CAP and as the CAP changes itself, will money be there for environmental support and countryside stewardship? And, if so, what will the criteria be, and will there be other ways that farmers are supported in the valuable work they do? So money is ‘issue one’.

“Issue two is labour. People want a guarantee that they will be able to secure the labour they need in order to make sure our rural economy keeps going.

“One of the things I am determined to do as we fashion a new migration policy, is to ensure the needs of agriculture and the rural economy are at the heart of it.

“I think the third thing I would mention is the opportunities presented by our new trading arrangements. Farmers recognise that as we leave the EU there are opportunities because of the high quality produce that the UK is famous for, and Norfolk in particular is noted for, there is an opportunity to sell more abroad – but we also need to make sure that as we do sell abroad that we do not compromise our high environmental and animal welfare standards.”

Mr Gove, a key architect of the “Leave” campaign during last year’s EU referendum, said Brexit represented a “huge opportunity for British agriculture”, opening up new markets overseas and freeing farmers from the “onerous bureaucracy” of the EU.

He also reaffirmed the government’s commitment to maintain current subsidy payments at their current level until at least 2022, and whatever happened beyond that, he was determined to ensure farmers could compete in international markets.

“Subsidy, if it is applied in the wrong way, can actually make farmers less productive,” he said. “So just because some other countries have subsidies it does not mean they are as productive as we can be.

“We can compete best on quality. The critical thing about British farm produce is that in a world where provenance matters more, where people want to know the journey from farm to fork in intimate detail, Britain is in a very strong position because of the high environmental and animal welfare standards that we maintain.”

Among the farming industry representatives who spoke to Mr Gove were Jon Duffy, chief executive of Anglia Farmers, who said: “I am impressed that he is here in the first place, and that he wants to go out and take soundings on people’s views. He asked questions rather than telling us what would happen.

“I said I would like to see agriculture further up the agenda within Defra, and Defra further up the agenda in Brexit. He listened, and he understood that.”

Shipdham dairy farmer Ken Proctor, Norfolk’s county delegate for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) also spoke to the Defra minister. He said: “I was impressed that he listened to the subjects we were portraying, he took evidence and asked questions, which showed the message was received loud and clear.

“He was saying that Defra is going to be a much more important department in the government now and after Brexit, and I think that is very important.”

See also: The problem with the EU Common Agricultural Policy – TLIO information briefing

Economic analysis of the Common Agricultural Policy: The CAP – cap it or scrap it?