Exclusive: Former council leader denies being in ‘developers’ pockets’ after taking on a new public affairs role

Katherine Johnston (18 August, 2021)

Campaigners push for new ban on sitting councillors working for lobbying firms

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Peter John has denied he is now in ‘developers’ pockets’, after bagging a new job for a public affairs company whose roster of current and former clients include big names Lendlease, Delancey and Avanton.

Campaigners say he is the latest councillor to ‘glide through the revolving door’, following a long line of cabinet members, backbenchers and planning officers hired by lobbying firms.

The former council boss, who stepped down in September 2020 after staying on for an extra seven months to steer the local authority’s crisis response during the pandemic, had previously ruled out working with developers.

In a lengthy interview in September last year we reported: “Contrary to some speculation, don’t expect to find John following some of his predecessors and entering the world of property developers. Instead he intends to revive his practice as a barrister, after taking some time off.”

In a direct quote John said: “I’d like to do something in public service if possible”.

It has since emerged that, while remaining a ward councillor for Champion Hill, he joined The Terrapin Group in December 2020 as chairman. It’s a role he says involves no more than two days a month in an advisory capacity – without lobbying.

“What changed is that offers were made to me,” he told the News on Tuesday, when questioned about his career u-turn.

“When I took the role at Terrapin I made it clear that there would be no lobbying but I would be happy to give strategic advice.

“It’s two days a month at most and my primary activity is being a barrister.”

He says the line between ‘strategic advice’ and ‘lobbying’ is ‘very distinct’ and ‘clear’.

“Lobbying is very clearly for a particular project or development and something I wouldn’t be doing,” said John.

Terrapin describes itself as ‘a market leader working in the arena of politics, property and development’.

Affordable housing campaigners from the 35% campaign have long criticised John’s record on housing, including the large-scale regenerations of the Heygate and Aylesbury Estate and Elephant and Castle town centre during his tenure at Tooley Street.

“Confidence in the planning system has been badly dented by high profile schemes not delivering the affordable housing we need,” the group said.

“That confidence is not improved when the former leader of the council becomes the chair of a lobbying firm whose business is ‘influencing government’, including ‘public authorities’, such as councils.”

It has highlighted that four other sitting Labour councillors have paid positions with similar companies, although under the Public Affairs Code they are unable to work on projects within their own borough or persuade councillors in other boroughs to approve any schemes they are involved in advising.

The 35 per cent campaign has called on Southwark Labour Group to take this one step further and ban all sitting councillors from working for any public affairs company with property developer clients or investors, and to set up a register of public affairs companies to increase transparency in planning applications for major developments.

Among Terrapin’s clients past and present are Elephant and Castle shopping centre landlord and developer Delancey (2013-present); Lendlease (2013-2017) and Avanton – the largest developer involved in the Old Kent Road opportunity area – which worked with the firm from 2017-2019

John admits he had intended to avoid taking on this kind of work while still serving his constituents in Champion Hill. Plans to step down as a councillor at the same time as resigning as leader were put on hold due to the pandemic when campaigning was suspended; making a by-election impractical. He will not stand again in May 2022.

“Whilst I’m confident that there is no conflict of interest, my only regret is that it has given the opportunity for people who have opposed everything I’ve ever done as council leader to attack our work again,” he added. “But it is lovely that they keep on reflecting about ten years of delivery.”

And he does not think banning councillors from public affairs jobs is the right approach.

“That would knock out some sitting councillors and in an inner London borough you will always get people working in these types of roles.

“As long as they are clear about declaring their interests it’s not a terrible problem.

“The reality is that we do need to help developers get permissions and for big schemes to go ahead.”

It is a view given short shrift by campaigners who believe developers have, for too long, been able to shirk their affordable and social housing responsibilities through successful lobbying.

When asked by the News whether the party would cede to campaigners’ demands, a spokesperson for Southwark Labour Group said: “All Labour councillors are subject to comprehensive measures that exist to mitigate against any potential conflicts of interest as and when they may arise.

“These include the Labour Party’s Local Government Code of Conduct, the council’s Code of Conduct, rules for members of the planning committee and the council’s complaints process.

“Residents in Southwark are welcome to refer to these documents as required and to raise any concerns through the appropriate channels.”

Ex-Southwark councillors who have gone on to work as advisors or lobbyists for developers include Liberal Democrat council leader (2002-2010) Nick Stanton OBE, a managing director of Curtin and Co property PR firm involved in the Southwark Metals Development and former deputy leader Kim Humphreys who founded ??Carvil Ventures, an ‘independent real estate consultancy’.

Contribute
Karen Connolly says:

It’s always been too unhealthy a relationship between Council Leaders, Council Staff and Councillors with developers and public funds still very much going on now 2021 and till that changes with proper scrutiny and accountability in public service people likes of us suffer in substandard Social Housing will always be the victims of the systemic incompetence and internal financial waste with no accountability whilst these people get rewarded with lucrative employment opportunities!

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