Thursday 5 October 2017

Cllr. Butt and hospitality from a property PR company – the details

Thanks to Philip Grant for this guest post. It is a long article but worth reading in full by anyone concerned about the relationship between Brent Council, its councillors and developers.

A recent blog on questions over “hospitality” for councillors, raised by Cllr. Duffy with Brent’s Standards Committee LINK led to many comments from “Wembley Matters” readers. In one comment, I drew attention to an entry in Cllr. Butt’s “Register of Interests” on the Council’s website, which raised concerns over its possible effect on planning matters in the borough:
'09/05/17 - Three course meal with developers from the construction industry. Estimated value between £30-40. Received from Terrapin Communications, London.'
I decided to seek further information from the Council Leader about this meal (paid for by a PR company which represents a number of property developers), so sent him an email and added the text of it as another comment. I had intended to put any reply received from Cllr. Butt as a further comment below that blog, but now feel that more readers could see it, and make their own judgement about the details given and their implications, if they are set out in a separate blog.

I was not optimistic that I would receive a reply from Cllr. Butt, as he has not replied to any emails I have sent him since September 2014. A number of these have included important questions, such as in February 2015, when I asked him (and repeated this in a blog, and in a letter published in the “Brent & Kilburn Times”) why he was still “protecting” two senior Council officers, Cara Davani and Christine Gilbert, when he had known about their misconduct in the Rosemarie Clarke Employment Tribunal case since at least September 2014? [I have previously suggested, only half-jokingly, that the reason he won’t reply is because he is afraid that anything he writes to me may be used in evidence against him!]

However, on 3 October I received an email from Brent, thanking me for my Freedom of Information request (I didn’t know that I had made one!) and saying that it had been forwarded ‘to the relevant department’. A few hours later, I received an email from the Chief Legal Officer, Debra Norman, giving the Council’s response to my FoI request. I don’t know why the Council Leader could not just provide the information himself, but at least the Council’s Monitoring Officer (Ms Norman’s “other hat”) realised that the points I had raised needed to be answered fully, and quickly. This is what she wrote (the numbered paragraphs begin with the six questions, in bold type, I had asked Cllr. Butt, so the answers are as if from him):-

Dear Mr Grant 
I set out the council’s responses to your request for information sent to Cllr. Butt which has been allocated to me via the council’s FOI system.  I have spoken to relevant senior officers concerning your request and the members and officers declarations of gift and hospitality have been reviewed.
  1. Who else from Brent Council (members or officers) attended that "Terrapin Communications" meal with you? 
·      Cllr Tatler  [Author’s note: Lead Member for Regeneration etc.]
·      Aktar Choudhury  [Note: Operational Director Regeneration]
·      Amar Dave  [Note: Strategic Director Regeneration and Environment]
The officers concerned declared the hospitality on 23.5.17 and 10.5.17 respectively.  Cllr. Tatler declared the hospitality on 10.5.17. Cllr Butt declared the hospitality on 09/05/17.

  1. Which companies were the 'developers from the construction industry' who were at that meal with you?
The guest list indicates the following companies sent representatives to the event: 
·      London Square
·      Dukelease
·      Dandi Living
·      Pinnacle
·      Henley Homes
·      R55
·      Stanhope
·      Countryside
·      The Collective

3.    What current or proposed developments in the London Borough of Brent are those companies (in question 2) involved with?

The relevant developer and addresses are included below.
·      London Square - 60 Neasden Lane
·      Dukelease and Dandi Living - York House – this is a permitted development
·      Pinnacle - Shubette House aka Pinnacle Tower
·      Henley Homes - Brent House
·      R55 - 255 Ealing Road and Minavil House
·      Countryside - Barham Park Estate
  1. What reason did Terrapin Communications give for inviting you to that meal?
To engage and enable developers to better understand the Borough and our aspirations. 
It is important that the council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Growth, Employment and Skills (who is not the chair of the Planning Committee and who has a different role) promotes a clear understanding of the council priorities in respect of affordable housing and quality of design.
5.    Were any past, present or proposed developments in Brent discussed at the meal, and if so, what developments or proposals?
The discussions consisted of generalisations about the borough aspirations and what the council wants to achieve. Only one developer (Dukelease) raised a particular development, which was York House.
6.    Were any of the matters discussed at the meal passed on afterwards to any other Brent Council member or officer, and if so, to whom were they passed?
Aside from requesting a relevant officer to respond to a transport issues raised by Dukelease, no information was passed on as operational matters were not discussed.

Best wishes 
Debra Norman 
Chief Legal Officer

Now that we have the information, what are we to make of it? I will give a few thoughts of my own, and I would invite anyone who wishes to, including Ms Norman and the councillors and officers who attended the meal, to add a comment in reply, giving their own views.

I will start with the reply to question 4, the reason that the PR company gave for inviting the Council Leader, and Brent’s top “Regeneration” people, to a meal with a number of their developer clients. The first sentence may be what they said, but the rest looks like a “gloss” put on that, to justify the attendance of Cllr. Tatler. 

Frankly, there was no need for a get together over dinner, especially if (as the answer to question 5 states) ‘the discussions consisted of generalisations about the borough aspirations and what the council wants to achieve.’ Brent’s Regeneration aspirations, and the planning guidance in respect of them, are set out clearly on the Council’s website. For example, this is the online package for regeneration in Wembley LINK .

Terrapin Communications could also have given their clients the information they needed on these issues from its own experience the previous year, in advising Hub Group over its successful planning application for the “Twin Towers” development at the corner of Wembley High Road and Park Lane. This was the proposal for two blocks of flats, up to 26 storeys high, which Planning Committee approved in April 2016 by four votes to two, with two abstentions. It was opposed by hundreds of local residents, but recommended by Planning Officers, despite it not complying with Brent’s and London’s policies on density, carbon emissions, living space, open space, play space and the proportion of affordable housing.  LINK .

Terrapin, as a PR company, of course put a positive “spin” on this decision, when reporting it on their website shortly afterwards:

‘Residents in Brent are set to benefit from an exciting new community centre along with other public improvements thanks to a new development in the Borough.  Terrapin Communications helped Hub Group secure planning consent for the scheme.  Designed by Macerator Lavington, it will also include 239 new residential units in two new buildings, one twenty six stories, the other twenty one stories. Commenting on the success at the Planning Committee, Terrapin Senior Adviser, Christian Klapp, said "It was hard work but rewarding knowing the benefits the new scheme will bring for people in the local area".’

In my opinion, Terrapin’s reason for arranging the meal and inviting Cllr. Butt and others was to “engage and enable developers” to meet, and hopefully influence, key decision makers in the borough. I agree that Cllr. Tatler ‘is not the chair of the Planning Committee’, but she, and particularly the Leader of the Council (and of the Labour Group, which has seven on the eight committee members) are in a position to influence the decisions made by that Committee (even though it would be a serious breach of Brent’s Planning Code if they were to do so).

Turning to the answers to questions 2 and 3, the developers at the meal with Cllr. Butt and the other Brent attendees, and what developments in Brent they are involved with, there are definitely some areas of concern. I will focus on the developer R55. They are not a potential developer who needed to ‘understand the Borough and our aspirations.’ They already had at least one development under construction, and other planning applications “in the pipeline”. 

The meal took place on 9 May 2017, and at the Planning Committee meeting on 24 May 2017 R55’s application 16/2629, for a large mixed-use development (including blocks of flats up to 26 storeys high) at Minavel House, Alperton, was unanimously approved, even though the Council’s regeneration masterplan for this area had set a height limit of ‘up to 17 storeys’. In the declarations of interest at the start of the meeting, under “approaches”, the minutes record: ‘Minavil House - All members and officers received a brochure from the applicant’s agents.’ Although not opposing the development in principle, a speaker against the application ‘expressed concerns on behalf of the residents in the development to the south of the site regarding the scheme’s scale, massing, height and obstruction to light.’  LINK

Although not listed in the response to question 3 above, R55 also have a pre-planning application, 16/0445/PRE, on the agenda for next Monday’s (9 October) Planning Committee meeting. This is in respect of ‘land at 370 High Road, London, NW10 2EA and 54-68 Dudden Hill Lane’, ‘for a mixed use development consisting of 224 residential units, a supermarket, nursery, gym, café, workshops and amenity space.’ A previous pre-planning presentation had been made to the committee on 15 March 2017, when it appears that some councillors may have expressed concern over the proposed height of some of the blocks of flats, in the vicinity of Willesden High Road.

Many Brent residents, and residents’ groups, have been disappointed by Planning Committee decisions in recent years, allowing developments which seem to go against the borough’s own agreed planning policies. An opposition motion calling for an investigation of this issue was put to the Full Council meeting on 18 September, but lost – although the details are not yet available on the Council’s website, it appears from the webcast that most of the Labour Group’s large majority of councillors voted against it. Yet a number of Labour councillors have told me privately that there is “political interference” within Brent’s planning system.

In his email to Cllr. Allie, the Chair of Standards Committee, the comments on which gave rise to this blog, Cllr. Duffy said:
In my experience its best to keep clear of hospitality from developers as “When you dance with a developer, it’s always to their tune".’
I hope that Brent’s Monitoring Officer will endorse that view, when she considers the lessons which should be learned from this episode. The Codes of Conduct for both members and officers include a requirement to comply with the seven general conduct principles in public life. If citizens of our borough are to have confidence in the Council, a key principle is:
Integrity: you should not place yourself in situations where your integrity may be questioned, should not behave improperly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.’
How does accepting an invitation to dine with developers, who may want you to help them get their planning applications approved, fit with that principle?


Philip Grant said...


In the blog article above, which I wrote yesterday, I said that Cllr. Butt had not replied to any emails I have sent him since September 2014. I must update that statement, and say that today I did receive a reply from Cllr. Butt, to the email I had sent him on 29 September 2017 requesting the information on which this blog is based.

Cllr. Butt advised me that he had passed my request to the Chief Legal Officer for a response. The rest of his email set out his views on my actions, and his justification for his own.

I have replied to him, advising him of this blog article and inviting him
to add his comments, in reply to the views I have set out:
'You are welcome to add any comments yourself, or, if you would prefer, I would be happy to "copy and paste" the text of your email to me as a comment, in the public domain, which would serve as your "right of reply" to me.'


Philip Grant said...

This is the text of an email which I sent this evening to Debra Norman, Brent's Chief Legal Officer, with copies to Cllr. Butt, Cllr. Tatler, Amar Dave and Aktar Choudhury:-

'Dear Ms Norman,

Further to your "FoI" response to me, I am writing to advise you that I have included the text of that response in a "guest blog" article which I wrote yesterday, and which has been published today on the "Wembley Matters" website at: [LINK to this blog]

I am attaching a pdf document version of my article, for ease of reference, and I am copying this email to the two Cabinet members and two senior officers who attended the meal with developers, organised by Terrapin Communications, for their information.

My blog article has been written against the backdrop of concerns expressed by many Brent residents about the number of significant planning applications from developers approved by Brent in recent years, despite the fact that they do not appear to comply with a number of Brent's agreed planning policies.

I would make clear that neither my article, nor this email, are intended as a Standards complaint against any of the Brent Council attendees at that meal.

My point was to highlight disquiet over planning matters, and that behaviour such as accepting hospitality in this way can appear to ordinary citizens as putting the member or officer concerned into a situation where their integrity may be questioned. You may consider that further guidance is necessary on such matters.

In my article, I have set out my views, and said: 'I would invite anyone who wishes to, including Ms Norman and the councillors and officers who attended the meal, to add a comment in reply, giving their own views.' I repeat that invitation here.

I am writing separately to Cllr. Butt, who I have received an email from today, in case he would like his text to be made public as a "comment" on what I have written.

Best wishes,

Philip Grant.'

Anonymous said...

I really hope that some candidates stand next year with a new vision for democracy and how Wembley is built. Let's hope these new residents in Wembley Park get red of Butt. Wembley needs it. Brent needs it. We all need it.

Anonymous said...

Can you publish his response in the public interest or shall we viewers submit a foi to have it released

Sandro said...

Whilst I agree 100% with the above comment it won't happen. Labour are too far cemented into Brent Council & will be for many many years to come. All Borough's (Brent obviously included) which have a large ethnic population will always be on the side of Labour. Plus for me the damage has already been done with 'Lego Land' Wembley & all the high rise towers that are already in place & many more already in the pipeline with planning already granted. Wembley is a town that I no longer recognise from what it once was in the 40 plus years that I have been living in it. Very sad & very upsetting.

Scott said...

It sounds like it should be people like you.

Philip Grant said...

Dear Anonymous (6 October at 01:15),

I see no reason why I should not publish it (even though it says some uncomplimentary things about me), but I would rather wait to see whether Cllr. Butt adds his own comment to this blog, or asks me to post the text of his email here, on his behalf.

(I won't wait three years, though.)


Anonymous said...

Terrapin's 'success at Planning Committee' to get the twin towers approved = 'hard work but rewarding knowing the benefits the new scheme will bring for people in the local area'


Anonymous said...

This concern is deepened by having looked at the R5 website and the entries for R55 and R55( Ealind Road) and what may be another possibly related R55 related company at Companies House. Looks like more "go getting" companies who employ other companies who are prepared to use unethical companies to get them what they want.
There has to be a change to what is going on in Brent.

Anonymous said...

Any sign of anything coming from Butt yet Philip?
Noticed he was absent from the Brent Connects meeting at Wembley earlier this week .... probably hadn't got the guts to turn up and face the public.

Philip Grant said...

In an email of 17 October, Cllr. Butt said (about posting the text of his 5 October email): 'if you wish to do so you are of course free to share our correspondence. All I ask is that it is presented in its entirety and without edit.'

For anyone interested, here is what he wrote to me:

Dear Mr Grant,

I have asked the Chief Legal Officer to respond to your detailed requests and provide you with the necessary information which I am sure would have been provided to yourself by now. In the meantime, because of its nature, I will address your broader enquiry.

I assume that you will be aware of the obligations on public officials to declare a wide range of interests that relate in any way to their position? I assume that you will be aware of the need for those declarations to be accurate, timely and transparent? I assume that you will be aware that those declarations are formally scrutinised so as to determine whether they preclude a person from involvement in, for example, a specific decision? And I assume that you will know that elected representatives are subject to many layers of public and professional accountability? Your methods, for example, while informal and unorthodox, clearly demonstrate my point about being held accountable.

Whether you know any of the above or not, your attempts to insinuate impropriety on my, or my colleagues’, part are irresponsible and inflammatory. So too are your apparent efforts to portray this publicly available, easily accessible information as having come to light as a result of your “research”.

You are extremely presumptuous in attempting to position yourself as some form of public representative acting in what you feel are other residents' best interests. Though I applaud your sense of civic duty I cannot say the same for your reckless, accusatory style or the complete absence of anything close to a mandate. Elected representatives have a multitude of formal responsibilities and legal obligations. They are entirely accountable to a binding code of conduct, half a millennia of statute, and the electorate. Private individuals, such as yourself, are subject to no such oversight.

As I say, you clearly feel some sense of civic duty. If you are interested in channelling this in a more productive, effective fashion, you should consider running in next May's local elections. As it happens, Brent Council is holding a conference for local residents who might be interested in becoming a councillor. This seems like something you'd be interested in so do please investigate.

Looking forward to seeing your name on a ballot paper.

Best wishes

Cllr Muhammed Butt
Leader of Brent Council.

Martin Francis said...

More on Terrapin here:

Anonymous said...

Isn't Mr Muhammed Butt a sad, bullying and arrogant person who feels a need to bully not only his colleagues but is now attempting to bully members of the general public. He may well get a shock in May.
Why should we not question why he, some of his senior staff and colleagues accepted this free meal with Terrapin which was also attended by senior representatives of developers who have since been given planning permission for developments in the area, including ones where Brent Planning Guidelines have been ignored e.g. Minavil House site. We well have the right to ask questions. Why doesn't Butt stand up and tell the truth. Perhaps he would prefer to have things taken to external enquiry and all taken to the media to ask further questions. If that's what he would prefer so be it. He must remember that there a quite a number of the long-standing members of the community who are absolutely sick of the jiggery pokery that we see going on.