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Cllr Heather Johnson

Legal threat over ‘conflict of interest’ claim

CAMPAIGNERS are considering legal action after a controversial multi-million tower block on the fringe of Regent’s Park was given the green light on Thursday.
They claim the chairwoman of the planning committee – whose casting vote allowed the plans to go through – should not have voted because she had already declared an interest.
Councillor Heather Johnson, a former Mayor, was made chairwoman of the planning committee only six months ago. She is also a director of the West Euston Partnership, a regeneration scheme that receives millions of pounds from the government and private sector. One of its funders is British Land, which is behind the controversial tower block scheme (see page 6 for full details).
Its director, Sir John Ritblat, was a guest at the recent party held in honour of the former leader of Camden Council, Dame Jane Roberts, when she stepped down last year.
The West Euston Partnership (WEP), which prints British Land’s logo on its literature, wrote a letter in support of the tower block scheme. Members also attended the meeting to back the plans in person.
Yet, at the WEP meeting to discuss the scheme Cllr Johnson excused herself. At the beginning of Thursday’s planning meeting at the Town Hall Cllr Johnson declared her interest – yet went on to vote anyway.
Cllr Johnson insisted she was allowed to take part in the meeting but the focus on her link with the WEP has been increased by the fact that her casting vote proved pivotal to the scheme winning overall approval – a vote of councillors had been tied at 5-5.
The Regent’s Park Conservation Area Advisory Committee (RPCAAC), opponents to the proposals, have raised concerns with Moira Gibb, the council chief executive.
Chairman Richard Simpson said: “It is hard to understand why Councillor Johnson’s interest was not considered ‘prejudicial’. On the face of it, Councillor Johnson seems to have followed an improper procedure.”
He added that his committee would be seeking legal advice.
Conservative councillors Jonny Bucknell and Don Williams have complained to the Town Hall’s legal department over Cllr Johnson’s link to the WEP.
Last night (Wednesday), Cllr Bucknell was waiting for a response from Borough Solicitor Alison Lowton.
He told the New Journal: “I’m very fond of Heather but we have to go by the code of conduct and we have raised our concerns. I think the officers should have pulled her up on it. We only found out afterwards. It’s an easy slip to make, I really think the officers should have spotted this and pointed it out.” Cllr Williams added: “We want clarification of what has gone on here. I don’t know whether there is a conflict of interests but from the outside eyebrows could be raised.”
The controversy could not have come at a worse time for the planning committee, which is now just weeks away from considering £2 billion plans to revamp the railwaylands behind King’s Cross and St Pancras stations – its biggest ever task.
It is also still reeling after last year’s sacking of former chairman Councillor Brian Woodrow, who was ousted by his own Labour colleagues amid claims that he was biased against the King’s Cross development. British Land has actively participated in the WEP’s work – providing rent-free offices and providing regular funding. British Land director Adrian Penfold is also a director of the WEP and the partnership is mentioned in the brochure accompanying the planning application.
Yesterday (Wednesday), British Land declined to comment on the row over Cllr Johnson’s vote.
The Crown Estate, co-applicants in the case, are represented on the WEP board by Ross Houston.
Mohammed Joynal Uddin, the chairman of the WEP, also funded by government grants, the National Lottery and Camden Council, said: “We set-up a sub-group and Heather left the room when we talked about it. She didn’t take part. This is a good project for West Euston. British Land has helped the area a lot.”
He said that British Land had helped fund improvements to the nearby Samuel Lithgow youth club.
Forced to defend her position, Cllr Johnson said on Monday that there was nothing wrong with her handling of the British Land application.
She said: “I was not involved in the consultation or negotiations and so had no prejudicial interest in the matter.
“The West Euston Partnership was not the applicant in this case, and the fact that their board had taken a decision to support the application did not bind me to that view.
“My view was that the scheme in itself was of good architectural design and any shortcomings were outweighed by the provision of good quality, large unit affordable housing in the scheme, the huge improvements planned for the public realm and the contributions to local employment and youth facilities.”
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