Campaigners have called for former Southwark housing chief Leo Pollak to resign after he was found to have breached the council’s code of conduct by an independent report.
The report by an external law firm, seen by the News, found that Labour’s Cllr Pollak breached the code by acting anonymously through his @SouthwarkYIMBY Twitter account, while holding public office.
But he did not break the code of conduct in the content of his tweets – either writing in favour of the council’s own planned developments or the “provocative” posts arguing with anti-infill campaigners, according to the report, which was commissioned by the council.
The report recommended that the council take no further action against Cllr Pollak, arguing that he had suffered enough. A Freedom of Information request revealed that he got a £4,881.10 ‘golden goodbye’ in April this year – despite the embarrassing way he resigned from his job in February after the news broke.
Cllr Pollak is also still a Labour councillor for the south Bermondsey ward.
Investigators also recommended that no disciplinary hearing take place, adding that “this would not be in the public interest nor a beneficial use of Council resources.”
A council spokesperson confirmed that no further action will take place against Cllr Pollak.
The report lifts the lid on the dispute between Cllr Pollak – who as Southwark Council’s head of social housing and as @SouthwarkYIMBY was pushing for a huge number of new schemes to tackle the borough’s 16,000 person housing waiting list – and the campaigners trying to stop ‘infill’ development on open space in existing estates.
Investigators detail the spats Cllr Pollak got into via his anonymous account with Robert Hutchinson and Lewis Schaffer, two prominent campaigners against infill social housing schemes in Southwark.
Cllr Pollak sent dozens of tweets through his @SouthwarkYIMBY account, including one where he accused a campaigner of being “a serial blusterer” and another where he denounced Mr Hutchinson for displaying “pathetic nimbyism”.
Mr Hutchinson runs the @BallcourtGarden Twitter account, which posts tweets largely against a proposed social housing development on Bermondsey’s Elim Estate. Mr Schaffer runs the @courtcampaign account, which coordinated a campaign against the since-scrapped Priory Court development in Nunhead.
As part of the process of resolving the dispute, Cllr Pollak sent apology letters to Mr Hutchinson and Mr Schaffer for his actions.
Cllr Pollak “took longer than was ideal” to send these letters, according to the report – with Mr Hutchinson only getting his apology on June 24, about four months after the story first broke. Mr Schaffer only got his after the a first draft of the report was complete.
Contacted by the News for a response to the report, both Mr Hutchinson and Mr Schaffer called for Cllr Pollak to resign his position as a Southwark councillor.
Mr Hutchinson said: “This is a sad moment for Southwark, but not unexpected.
“In June I received a carefully worded apology from Cllr Pollak in which he delimited the harm done – and his apology – to myself and Lewis Schaffer only, rather than acknowledging the harm caused to the people of Southwark including the loss of trust in the Council that his actions have caused.
“The timing of the apology from Cllr Pollak, received on 24th June within 24 hours of my interview with the investigator, must call into question the independence of the investigation.
Mr Hutchinson added that the investigation had taken an “inordinate” amount of time.
He went on: “Cllr Pollak has let down the people of Southwark who deserve better representation than this. Cllr Pollak should now do the honourable thing and resign as a councillor.”
Mr Schaffer echoed Mr Hutchinson’s calls for Cllr Pollak to resign, adding: “He undermined residents and community groups whom he was elected to represent…
“He violated the Council’s Code of Conduct. This behaviour means he has no place representing the people of Southwark.”
The report found several mitigating factors for Cllr Pollak’s behaviour, including alleged threats made by Mr Schaffer against him and Victoria Mills, a fellow Labour councillor for Peckham Rye. Cllr Pollak echoed these claims against Mr Schaffer.
Mr Schaffer said these were “extremely serious and false accusations” and added that he would be seeking legal advice in response.
Cllr Pollak also told investigators that he was concerned about “false statements” made about the Elim Estate and Priory Court plans. Both Mr Hutchinson and Mr Schaffer denied spreading “misinformation”.
Southwark’s Liberal Democrats, who are in opposition, did not go as far as calling for Cllr Pollak’s resignation from the council, but said it was “disappointing” that the report did not call for further action.
Councillor Hamish McCallum, the party’s leader on the council, added: “Many residents feel so aggrieved about Cllr Pollak’s behaviour that they will not believe he is exonerated simply by his resignation from cabinet — for which he received a £4,881.10 ‘loss of office’ payment out of taxpayers’ money.
“The investigation found a breach of the council’s code of conduct and I hope further action is considered by the council’s Standards Committee.”
Although Cllr Pollak was found to have breached the council’s code of conduct in the final version of the report, an original version decided that he did not break the code. No reason was given for the change, other than investigators deciding to “give further in depth thought to the issue”.
The report, originally finished in November but only obtained by the News this week, will be presented at an audit, governance and standards committee meeting in January.
Cllr Pollak said: “Southwark residents should rightly expect both a highest standards from their public representatives, and I am keen to restate my apology for using an unattributed twitter account. I set up the @southwarkyimby account long before I was a cabinet member, to help make the positive case for building new council homes and to promote model approaches to community engagement and development.
“However it was of course wrong not to be open that this account was run by me, and then to later use an unattributed account to challenge what I perceived as misinformation about where and how we were looking to build council homes. I have apologised to the two people concerned.
“I sincerely hope that this error doesn’t detract from the vital collaborative effort between residents and the council to secure new estate improvements and the new council homes that so many local people desperately need. “
A council spokesperson said: “The council’s monitoring officer followed the correct procedure for investigating any complaint against a cabinet member. The Investigating Officer found that the actions taken voluntarily by Councillor Pollak – his apology, resignation as cabinet member and willingness to attend training – went over and above anything that could have been imposed upon him, and therefore it would not be a good use of public money to pursue this matter further.”
Cllr Mills did not comment.