The revolving door: the links between local government and developers

The Viability Loophole. Pic: Ella Milburn & Jamie Macwhirter.

In 2011 planning permission for one of the most ambitious and controversial regeneration schemes in London was granted by Lewisham Council to Renewal, an offshore-registered development company founded by a former Mayor of Lewisham.

The £1bn “New Bermondsey” scheme proposed by Renewal was to set to create 2,400 new homes and a sporting village on a 30-acre site around Millwall FC’s Stadium. Only 10 per cent of the homes proposed were designated as affordable, well below the borough’s 50 per cent target. Lewisham Council had planned to purchase the land using a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO).

The two co-founders of Renewal both have strong ties to Lewisham Council: Dave Sullivan was the Mayor of Lewisham from 1998-2002 and Mushtaq Malik was a senior officer until 1995. Although Sullivan left Renewal in 2007, Malik is still director of the company alongside his daughter Jordana Malik, who is now also a director.

Millwall and its supporters denounced the links between Renewal and Lewisham council as a conflict of interest, and strongly contested the scheme, which it said was a threat to local businesses and the club’s community and youth work. The club put forward alternative plans to the council in 2013 proposing more affordable housing and keeping the club at the heart of the development, although no formal application was made.

In a letter written to Lord Dyson in December disputing the findings of an inquiry in relation to plans to redevelop land used by Millwall, the club’s chairman John Berylson said:

“We presented our revised proposals for developing the Millwall land in August 2013 and the council resolved to sell that land to Renewal the following month. It is true that the council said that they would require further details of our development proposals, but they never gave us an opportunity to provide them.”

But it was only after the emergence of allegations that Renewal and its partners had falsely claimed to have £2m Sports England funding that Lewisham council backtracked on the plans. These false funding allegations were later dismissed by Lord Dyson in his inquiry report. While Lewisham council has since said the CPO plan has been abandoned, for many, trust has already been eroded.

CGI of Renewal’s vision for the New Bermondsey scheme. Pic: Renewal.

This is not an isolated incident. Across the country there is a swathe of examples of former councillors and high-profile council employees involved in planning decisions who have gone on to work for developers. There are also many instances of current councillors offering consultancy services to developers or working for or sitting on the boards of developers and housing associations.

In her report on the lobbying of local government by developers, housing writer Anna Minton refers to the “well-oiled revolving door” between developers and councils.

“Developers and their lobbyists are actively targeting public officials  it’s only rational for them to do so”, Tamasin Cave, the director of Spinwatch, explains.

“In order to get influence to secure planning permission, developers and lobbyists need access to local decision makers  and the quickest way of developing that access is to buy in someone who’s already got it.

“Former and current councillors and high-profile council employees are very valuable as they have massive experience of how the system works and the right people to talk to.”

In a previous response to concerns about Renewal’s strong connections with Lewisham Council, director Malik told Property Week:

“All these rumours about me and Lewisham are absolute nonsense. People say: ‘You’re connected to them.’ But I left 22 years ago. Yes, some of those people are still there, but I went off and formed a company that provided public sector services in the private sector and we had contracts with probably 70 local authorities up and down the country, employing 5,000 people.”

Pic: Steve Hardwicke

However, Cave argues that former local government officials can provide access to the council for developers that is simply not available to local residents.

“Developers and lobbyists are buying advantage. They’re paying for services and opportunities that aren’t open to the community”, she says.

“The community are only able to get extra information from the council and make their voices heard through freedom of information law or the local paper—if there is one. The public consultation processes for new developments are often utterly farcical so that’s not a process that works for the community either.”

Even in the case of housing associations which are categorised as charitable organisations, Cave argues that former local government officials working for these organisations confers an unfair advantage.

Housing associations are major commercial players” she said. “It’s often difficult to distinguish between charities and for profit organisations because there are all sorts of loopholes and grey areas.”

So what can be done to prevent current and former councillors and high-profile council employees from lending their skills and expertise to developers and giving them unfair advantage in the planning process?

Cave suggests that both the introduction of regulations to prevent the immediate movement of local government officials going on to work in the development industry would help.

“There needs to be checks on the revolving door”, she explains. “At the moment there’s no cooling off period for local government officials when they leave the council and then go on to work for developers.

“The problem is that in central government the system governing the revolving door is utterly broken and this culture has cascaded down to local government.

“So local government officials see ministers going into industries they used to regulate and assume there is no problem with using their expertise to move into a job in the development industry as there are no restrictions to stop them from doing this.

“But what is also needed is proper scrutiny. Councils need to be much more open about what they’re doing and who they’re talking to and we need a healthy local media to hold these people to account.”

Below we list some of the most striking examples of the links between local government officials and the development industry across the East London Lines boroughs—Lewisham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Croydon. Click on the tab for your borough for details about the current and former councillors and high-profile council employees who have strong links with developers.

There is no suggestion that any of the local government officials mentioned in this article have acted illegally or improperly. All of the links highlighted between these individuals and the development industry are legal.

Tower Hamlets

Paul Bloss:

Paul Bloss was the former Senior Housing Officer for Tower Hamlets before becoming the chief executive of Eastend Homes (EEH). He wrote the document with the council’s proposals for setting up the housing association, which was agreed in 2003.

Eastend Homes owns social housing stock across several estates in the borough and has invested over £135m in the improvement and regeneration of these estates since it was formed in 2005. The housing association has also built 300 new affordable homes.

In response to concerns about Bloss’ strong ties to Tower Hamlet Council, Bloss said:

“There is no conflict of interest between my current role and my previous job. Eastend Homes is a charitable housing association which undertakes estate regeneration and the development of new homes which are genuinely affordable for local people in housing need. We are, in other words, a not-for-profit organisation.

“Hypothetically, I doubt that a ‘conflict of interest’ would exist if a former councillor were employed by a developer, although eyebrows might be raised.

“A current councillor however, who happened to be employed by a developer seeking a planning consent from the council, would be required to declare such an interest and would need to recuse themselves from any decision making process.”  


Steve Stride:

Steve Stride worked for Tower Hamlets Council for seventeen years until 1998 and his final position was as Housing Partnership Manager. In the same year he left the council he became the Chief Executive of Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (Poplar HARCA).

Poplar HARCA manages 9,000 homes in Poplar  and has been granted planning permission by Tower Hamlets Council for several large-scale regeneration projects since it was founded. This includes the regeneration of Balfron Tower and the Leopold Estate and new developments such as Bartlett Park.  The Housing Association has applied for planning permission to redevelop Chrisp Street Market.

We contacted Stride for comment on whether his connections to Tower Hamlets Council might be considered a conflict of interest with his role as chief executive of Poplar HARCA, but he had not responded at the time of publication.


Councillor Paul Scott:

Councillor Paul Scott, the chair of Croydon Council’s Planning Committee, is one of the directors of TP Bennett, a firm of architects that has previously worked for developers Westfield.

However, Scott allegedly failed to make a public declaration of his role in TP Bennett. Instead he maintained his role on the Planning Committee when the council granted planning permission to Westfield for the £1.4bn redevelopment of the Whitgift centre.

We contacted Scott for comment on his connection with the Westfield group through TP Bennett, however he had not responded at the time of publication.

In response to criticisms that his role for the architecture firm could be considered a conflict of interest with his role as chair of the Planning Committee, he said:

“Although TP Bennett have in the past worked for Westfield - who are part of the Croydon Partnership’s joint venture for the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre - I was not involved in the project and I’ve never had any relationship with the organisation outside of my capacity as chair of the planning committee.

“In recognition of my active role within the construction industry and my role on the planning committee, I have a dispensation as set out in the council’s constitution and was approved by the council’s ethics committee.”

"The important thing is openness and disclosure. If someone is involved in some way in a project - if they’re going to financially gain from a planning consent being granted - then they shouldn’t take part in the decision. It’s very simple, and that’s the way it should work.

“But a lot of people on councils tend to be involved in lots of other things. Most have a day job, they’re involved in the community - that’s how they get involved in politics in the first place. So, very often there are what might be conceived as conflicts of interest. They’re allowed to have the rest of their lives.

“It’s a good thing to be involved in the subject you’re a councillor for. I’d say, as result of being an architect, I’ve been able to get onto schemes, pushing for more affordable housing. I’ve been able to say to officers: “Well, hang on, if they did this or that differently, you could get more value in the scheme, and hence more affordable housing.

"That’s a good thing. I’m able to bring my skills and experience into that. But if I was working on a scheme or I was going to get some money out of it, of course I  wouldn’t be taking part in it. I wouldn’t dream of doing that, and I never have done.


Councillor Alison Butler:

Councillor Paul Scott is married to Councillor Alison Butler, Croydon’s Cabinet Member for Homes Regeneration and Planning who played a key role in establishing the council’s own development company Brick by Brick.

The company was set in 2015 to avoid central government limitations on council house building in order to build homes on council-owned land, sell off around half at market value, and offer the rest at affordable rents. However, despite a £10m loan from the council to build 1,000 homes by 2019, no homes have been built so far.

It has also attracted criticism over plans to “infill”  green spaces on council property with new houses. Earlier this year seventeen local residents’ associations wrote an open letter to the council complaining about the impact such development would have on the people already living on the estates.

We contacted Councillors Scott and Butler for comment on whether their connection with Brick by Brick might be a conflict of interest with their roles as councillors with responsibility for approving planning permission. However they did not respond at the time of publication.


Councillor Sem Moema:

Councillor Sem Moema is the Mayoral Adviser for Private Renting and Affordability in Hackney and sits on the Planning Sub-Committee as a substitute. She has also worked for Genesis Housing Association since 2011 and has worked as a bid manager for the organisation since  May 2017. 

Genesis is one of the developers involved in the regeneration of the Woodberry Down estate which involves demolishing 1,980 homes on the estate and building more than 5,500 new ones, with 41% assigned as affordable. This scheme received planning permission from Hackney Council in February 2014.

Councillor Moema has declared this role on her register of interests.

Genesis is one of the largest housing associations in London and manages 32, 139 homes in London including some in Hackney.

We contacted Moema for comment on whether her work for Genesis might be considered a conflict of interest with her role as a councillor and as Mayoral Adviser for Private Renting and Affordability, but she had not responded at the time of publication.


Councillor Susan Fajana-Thomas:

Councillor Susan Fajana-Thomas sits on Hackney Council’s Planning Sub-Committee and also sits on the board of the Industrial Dwelling Society (IDS).

IDS is a housing association which manages 1,500 properties across several London boroughs including Hackney.

Councillor Fajana-Thomas has declared this role on her register of interests.

We contacted Fajana-Thomas for comment on whether her position on the board of IDS might be considered a conflict of interest with her role as a councillor sitting on the Planning Sub-Committee, but she had not responded at the time of publication.



This article is part of EastLondonLines’ Home Truths series, which looks at how Londoners are losing out on affordable housing. Click here for the full series.

This article amended on 14 April 2018 to correct /clarify two points:

  • Mushtaq Malik was a “senior officer” at Lewisham Council, not a “senior housing officer” as an earlier version said. Malik had no involvement with housing and planning while working for the council.
  • An earlier version said: “Alternative plans were put forward, proposing more affordable housing and keeping the club at the heart of the development.” This was amended to reflect the fact that Millwall put forward the alternative plans, but no formal application was made. 

The article was amended on 17 April 2018 to correct/ clarify one point:

  • Renewal were alleged to have falsely claimed to have £2m Sports England funding, not £2bn as an earlier version said. 
  • In an earlier version there was no mention of the fact that there these false funding allegations were later dismissed by Lord Dyson in his inquiry report


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