Morden Wharf: We can’t stop ex-councillors helping developers, Greenwich Council says

Morden Wharf render
Morden Wharf was approved by Greenwich councillors on Stephen Brain’s casting vote

Greenwich Council has shrugged off calls to clamp down on councillors taking jobs with planning consultancies because it has no power to stop them.

This website revealed last week that Stephen Brain, the former planning chair who approved the controversial Morden Wharf development on his casting vote, had become a consultant for a company involved in the scheme.

Brain, 69, took the role at Lowick, a public affairs company, after stepping down as a Labour councillor in May. Lowick – which handled community engagement for the developer U+I – said he was hired to give advice and would not be lobbying sitting councillors.

The former councillor had angered many residents – including a former council leader – with blunt comments during planning meetings. His approval of Morden Wharf – which will include towers of 21, 25, 30 and 36 storeys that will clearly be seen from Greenwich Park – angered many, with local MP Matt Pennycook left “incredulous”.

The story went viral on social media, with the East Greenwich Residents’ Association, which had objected to Morden Wharf, calling on locals to complain to the council about the issue.

While critics have long railed against the “revolving door” between councils and lobbyists, there is no law against councillors taking up positions in the planning industry when they leave office. Across the country, many serving councillors also hold down roles in the business.

Denise Scott McDonald, Chris Lloyd, Stephen Brain
Brain (right) with his former Peninsula ward colleagues Denise Scott-McDonald and Chris Lloyd. There is no law to stop councillors taking up roles in consultancies

Conservative opposition leader Matt Hartley told 853 that he had suggested to Anthony Okereke, the council leader, that Greenwich councillors who sit on planning committees should voluntarily agree not to take such roles after they leave the town hall.

“This episode will be deeply damaging to public trust in the planning system in our borough,” he said.

“As far as I know there is nothing to stop Stephen Brain from doing this as a former councillor – but we do need to think about how to undo the damage that this will undoubtedly cause to public confidence in how future planning applications are considered.

“A good start would be asking any councillor who puts themselves forward to serve on any planning committee to first give a written undertaking that they will not subsequently seek any form of employment by a developer or planning consultancy. Any councillor who is not prepared to give that commitment should not, in my view, serve on a planning committee.

“I believe that this is a system that Anthony Okereke and I, as the leaders of the two political groups on the council, could agree to put in place right now – and I will be suggesting to Anthony that we do exactly that.”

But Greenwich Council dismissed Hartley’s call. A spokesperson said: “The council is satisfied that the former chair of the planning committee fulfilled his role according to the rules.

“There is no legal basis for the council to tell former councillors which employers they can and cannot work for.

“Neither does the council have the power to make new rules that would allow it to dictate what jobs councillors can do when they are no longer elected as councillors.

“The council’s planning committee is made up of publicly elected councillors from across all parties. All councillors, while they are in office, receive very clear advice on how they should behave and these standards are published on the council website.”

Denise Hyland, Danny Thorpe, Chris Roberts and Nick Raynsford
Chris Roberts (in shades) joined Cratus after leaving office in 2014. Danny Thorpe, second left, now works as head of public affairs for Clarion housing association

Brain is not the first former councillor in Greenwich to sign up with a consultancy. Chris Roberts, who led the council for 14 years and was a member of the planning board for about half that time, became deputy chairman of Cratus Communications after stepping down in 2014.

Cratus – which represented Rockwell on its failed scheme to redevelop part of the Charlton riverside – was founded by a former Conservative councillor in Kingston, Nick Kilby.

Roberts is now a senior associate with the company, alongside Dame Mary Ney, Greenwich’s former chief executive, and Steve Quartermain, an ex-head of the Planning Inspectorate.

Alex Grant, another former Greenwich Labour councillor, said on Twitter that he joined another consultancy, Thorncliffe, three years after stepping down as chair of planning in 2010.

He told the social media site: “There may be a case for a ‘cooling-off period’ between stepping down as chair of a planning comittee (or as a councillor) and working for such a co, but no rules or guidelines exist and Brain can’t be accused of doing wrong, or exploiting a loophole.”

Serving councillors – including cabinet members – can work for consultancies, although the industry’s voluntary rules are designed to stop them working on projects in their home boroughs.

Okereke worked for Chess Engage and Planning Potential before being elected council leader in May, while his predecessor Danny Thorpe’s new day job is as head of public affairs for the housing association Clarion.

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