Down the drain

7 Sep

Sir Robin Wales is about to flush £40 million of council taxpayers’ money down the toilet.

Detail hidden in the draft accounts due to be signed off by cabinet tonight shows that the ‘loan’ made to help transform the 2012 Olympic stadium into West Ham United’s new ground is being written off.

Newham Council ‘invested’ £40m via a special subsidiary company called Newham Legacy Investments Ltd.

At the time, Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales stated:

“Our investment of £40 million secures that legacy by transforming the Olympic Stadium into a world class attraction […]. This will provide us with a share of the profits generated over the long-term and a range of community benefits for Newham residents.”  

After just one season of operation as a football stadium the council is now ‘writing off’ that £40m investment. A line in the Draft Statement of Accounts 2016/17 states:

“Impairment totalling £44.4m of a Long Term Debtor in one of the Council’s group undertaking, Newham Legacy Investments Ltd” (page 12, item 7) 

and 

“The company’s 2016/17 financial results disclosed a loss of £2.5m (2015/16: loss of £41.6m), and net liabilities of £44.4m (£41.9m of net liabilities as at 31 March 2016).” (page 88, item 39)

Newham Legacy Investments Ltd has had a number of directors over the last five years including senior council officer Zoe Power (Head of Projects and Programmes, Newham) and Cllr Lester Hudson (deputy Mayor, Cabinet member for Finances and Chair of Audit board). Given that the audit board should scrutinise decisions made by cabinet, council and council-owned subsidiaries this combination of roles was a massive conflict of interests.

While Newham handed over £40m to convert the stadium, West Ham United themselves only contributed £15m, despite being owned by two multi-millionaires and the Premier League being the richest in the world.

The £40m being written off is double the amount of ‘savings and efficiencies’ being made this year. Residents were promised the investment would provide Newham with a share of the profits generated over the long term. It turned out be a gift to Messrs Sullivan and Gold. The money, borrowed by the council from the Treasury, will now have to be re-paid by local taxpayers.

This blog has regularly cast doubts on whether the other commitments including local jobs and tickets for residents have been delivered.

This is not Newham’s first Olympic investment to back fire. In 2012 it also had to write off more than £3m invested into London Pleasure Gardens. With additional liabilities added on, taxpayers were left close to £5m out-of-pocket.

All-in-all, Sir Robin’s track record on finance (under the ‘scrutiny’ of the double-jobbing Cllr Hudson) is not impressive.

Which makes this week’s news that Newham council has bought a multi-let office block in Redhill, Surrey for £25m all the more worrying.

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Hey Porsche

25 Aug

Ayesha Porsche Tweet

My heart goes out Beckton’s lead community councillor, Ayesha Chowdhury. Her beloved white Porsche was stolen from her driveway last night.

The Twitter announcement attracted two ‘likes’ before being deleted. Such cruelty. Who celebrates a Labour councillor in one of London’s poorest boroughs being deprived of their high-powered luxury German sports car? 

And this is not the first piece of ill-fortune to have befallen her. In 2011 she had to move out of her housing association property when the national media focused its attention on her buy-to-let portfolio in Newham, then valued at over a million pounds. 

Happily for her, the soaraway London property market has since inflated her wealth to over £4 million, with an estimated monthly rental value of close to £19,000.

So if the Porsche doesn’t come back she can probably afford a new one.

Time after time

15 Aug

By the time next year’s election rolls around 15 current members of the council will have held their seats continuously for 20 years or more.

The table below shows exactly how long they’ve been around

Name Date elected Years to date
A SINGH 04/05/1978 39.31
C McAULEY 06/05/1982 35.30
R WALES* 09/07/1992 25.12
I CORBETT 09/07/1992 25.12
L HUDSON 05/05/1994 23.30
E SPARROWHAWK 05/05/1994 23.30
N WILSON 05/05/1994 23.30
C FURNESS 01/05/1997 20.30
Q PEPPIATT 01/05/1997 20.30
U DESAI 07/05/1998 19.30
R CRAWFORD 07/05/1998 19.29
J LAGUDA 07/05/1998 19.29
W VAUGHAN 07/05/1998 19.29
P SATHIANESAN 07/05/1998 19.29
P HOLLAND 07/05/1998 19.29

 *Robin Wales was also previously on the council from 1982 to 1986.

When local branches meet this autumn to select their candidates, one thing they should consider is the urgent need to freshen up the Labour group.

NOTE: The original version of this post stated that 16 members will have held their seats for 20 years or more and the table included Cllr Bryan Collier. It has been pointed out that Cllr Collier was defeated at the 2006 election and returned to the council in 2010, so his current continuous service is just over seven years; first elected in 1994, his total period as councillor is more than 19 years. The same is true for Cllr Alan Griffiths.

Personal Trainer

10 Aug

Tumblr inline nxx1r2FH3u1skqymr 500

Assistant chief executive and alleged Labour press flak Douglas Trainer

An intriguing and disturbing FOI request to Newham Council (links added):

The newly promoted Mayoral advisor Cllr Patrick Murphy was the Newham Labour Party procedures secretary to the recent Mayoral trigger ballot. When he has been contacted by journalists interested in the allegations made about this process he has told them to contact the Newham Council Assistant Chief Executive, Douglas Trainer for comment.

Mr Trainer is paid by Newham Residents £111,000 per year and is in a politically restricted post.

  1. Please confirm that Mr Trainer has contacted or discussed the Labour Party Mayoral trigger ballot (and anything associated with it) with any journalist.
  2. If so the names of these journalists; when; where; how and what he said to these journalists and why he has acted as a spokesperson for the Labour Party.
  3. I understand that there are tape recordings of these conversations.
  4. Please list the social events that Mr Trainer has attended with member of Newham Labour Party including at Labour Party conferences.

If the allegation here is true, it is extraordinary. Why on earth would Cllr Murphy think it appropriate to refer press enquiries about an internal Labour election to the assistant chief executive of the council?

And why would Mr Trainer agree to respond to them? He is explicitly forbidden from “acting on behalf of the party … in dealing with non-party members.”

This is no doubt a consequence of Labour’s total grip on power in the borough. Senior officers and councillors alike have come to believe that the council and the party are one and the same.

Note: I linked to the LB of Havering guidance on politically restricted posts because no equivalent page appears to exist on Newham’s website. Which is in itself telling.

Cunning stunt

9 Aug

Cunning Wales 3

A quiet word in your ear, Sir Robin…

If you were an electorally unsuccessful Scottish Labour politician looking to make a fresh start down south, where would you head for?

Newham might look like a pretty good option.

Certainly Barrie Cunning thinks so. He stood for Labour in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year and came in fourth, all-but-halving the party’s vote in the process. Now he lives in Canning Town and has his eyes firmly fixed on a seat in the council chamber.

As if being a white Scottish male wasn’t advantage enough, a bit of good luck has helped get him further into Sir Robin’s good books.

Back in February, Sir Robin was invited to speak at an Edinburgh Networking Breakfast event on ‘Building Partnership in Development.’ According to the mayor’s register of gifts and hospitality, his flights and accommodation were paid for by Newington Communications, the PR firm Barrie Cunning happens to work for.

And when the mayor took his trip to Cannes in March, one of the sponsors was Berkeley Group. They are clients of Newington Communications. According to his profile, Barrie Cunning works across the development and housing sectors.

So, let me be the first to say “Congratulations on your election, Councillor Cunning.”

Letter to the Editor

8 Aug

A reader writes

Dear Sir,

What on earth is going on at the Newham Mag? I had always thought it was the Mayor’s personal publicity freebie, distributed fortnightly to the adoring masses, and a snip at just £20,000 per issue.

But in the current edition there are only seven (7!)  photos of our Mayor (compared to 20 in the previous edition) and of those, in only 4 is he wearing the Mayor’s ceremonial chain of office. In one photo, he is not even wearing a tie and looking very much the worse  for wear, but possibly this photo shoot was carefully crafted to blend in with a very messy dwelling whose landlord the Council is aiming to prosecute.

And what’s worse there are more photos of the Deputy Mayor (Statutory) and Cabinet Member for Community Neighbourhoods, Ken Clark – he has eight.
Has there been a midnight coup?

Has Clark seized the Mag as part of  his own ruthless drive to succeed the man who has created his Deputy (Statutory)’s political career out of nothing? I think the people deserve an explanation before disllusion and consternation start to take a grip as election year approaches.

Yours sincerely,

Kevin Mansell

All excellent questions.

To which can be added, when will the council comply with the direction issued by the secretary of state for Communities and Local Government last December and reduce publication of the Newham Mag to just four times a year?

Holidays in the sun

2 Aug

Sir Robin at MIPIM 2017

Every March the French mediterranean resort of Cannes plays host to MIPIM, an international property event. According to Wikipedia

The event aims to facilitate business between investors, corporate end-users, local authorities, hospitality professionals, industrial and logistics players and other real estate professionals.

It is tailor-made for the big swinging dicks and wannabe Trumps of the property development racket. So obviously the mayor of Newham would want to be there.

And according to a recent FOI response, he was, accompanied by deputy mayor Cllr Ken Clark, Director of Regeneration and Planning Deirdra Armsby and Head of Regeneration Robin Cooper.

But fear not. Your council tax was not funding a penny of this.

All expenses were paid for via sponsorship from Westfield Group, Berkeley Group, Telford Homes, English Cities Fund and ABP (London) Investments

How very generous of them. 

Flights, accommodation, the conference tickets, plus feeding and watering four thirsty delegates would have set them back a few quid. Sadly, we don’t know yet exactly how much as the mayor and Cllr Clark have neglected to update the register of gifts and hospitalities with the information.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is what I wrote back in 2012 when the mayor made a similar, commercially sponsored trip to the south of France:

…if there was a genuine and compelling reason for Newham to be present at this conference I’d have no objection to the trip being funded from public money. I’m entirely prepared to believe the trip was a worthwhile way for Sir Robin and his entourage to spend their time.

In fact, if the mayor’s presence was so vital it absolutely should have been paid for by the taxpayer. Drumming up business for Newham is part of his job…

…If going to a global property conference is the best way to meet developers, then that’s the place to be. The fact that the event took place in the south of France is neither here nor there. Sir Robin didn’t choose the venue.

Public officials travelling on public business should have their expenses met from the public purse. That way everything’s above board and there’s no question about whose interests they’re representing.

But this trip wasn’t funded with public money. And that is extremely worrying. No-one provides hospitality on this scale without some expectation of getting something in return…

…Perhaps Sir Robin is pleased with himself for saving the public purse a few pounds, but it may end up being a poor bargain for Newham.

Until we know who paid for his trip the mayor must recuse himself from all discussions about regeneration and redevelopment in Newham and from consideration of all planning applications.

Otherwise how can we tell if he’s doing the right thing by residents or repaying a debt to his generous sponsors?

Five years on, the same concerns apply.

UPDATE

I have been sent a copy of another FOI response on a similar topic (sadly not available online), which was released in June. This says that the Cannes party included the council chief executive. If he was indeed there, the cost to the sponsors (and the implied obligation) is even greater.

It also raises a question about quality control in the information governance team. How could two virtually identical questions, asked within a few weeks of each other, result in two different answers?