Ministry of Sound in Liberal Democrat donations row
Political donations to the Liberal Democrats from a nightclub chain totalling almost £80,000 went undeclared as its councillors discussed a tower block development opposed by the firm, BBC London has learned.
The Ministry of Sound, in Elephant and Castle, south London, was fighting to prevent developer Oakmayne building a residential tower block nearby.
The club feared noise complaints from the completed tower block would eventually lead to its closure.
But none of the three Liberal Democrat politicians who rejected the application declared that the party locally had been in receipt of donations from the nightclub - £21,000 at local level and £57,300 at national level.
Technically, planning councillors do not have to declare donations to their party - even though they would have to declare attending a party at the club - because councillors are deemed not to benefit personally.
In light of the BBC investigation, lawyers for Oakmayne are writing to Southwark Council asking for the decision-making process to be re-run.
End Quote Tony Travers Local government expert
It is a very good example of something that, even though it's technically within the rules, the public might judge not good”
A further £1,000 was donated to Simon Hughes, the local Liberal Democrat MP.
Mr Hughes has also publically sided with the nightclub in the dispute, arguing that residential development in the area is inappropriate.
The BBC's office gave Mr Hughes' office the opportunity to comment but they declined.
The last two donations were made on 30 June, while the meeting was held in October.
On Monday permission was granted for another tower block nearby - despite objections from Ministry of Sound on the same grounds.
Again the three Liberal Democrats voted against the development, which was passed by four votes to three and the donations were not declared.'Significant donation'
Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics, said: "It is a very good example of something that, even though it's technically within the rules, the public might judge as not good.
"I think the public would find it odd."
He continued: "It's a significant donation for a local party.
"They would very rarely get donations of that size - donations would typically be between £50 and £500."
Government guidance reads: "If a reasonable member of the public with knowledge of all the relevant facts would think that your judgement of the public interest might be prejudiced, you have a prejudicial interest.
"You must ask yourself whether a member of the public - if he or she knew all the relevant facts - would think that your personal interest was so significant that it would be likely to prejudice your judgement."
Although the donations were properly declared to the Electoral Commission when they were received, both Oakmayne and Southwark Labour were unaware of their size until contacted by the BBC.
Southwark Labour says it is unable to comment for legal reasons.
Christopher Allen, chairman of Oakmayne Properties, said he was "very surprised" the donations were not declared.
He added: "The public rightly expects politicians of all parties to act with absolute probity, and this evidence appears to cast very serious doubts over the decision to refuse planning permission, when all the evidence supported it and the council's own planning officers had recommended it for approval."
There is nothing to suggest the Ministry of Sound deliberately set out to sway members of the committee when making the donations.
Chief executive Lohan Prescencer said: "We give money to all sorts of good causes. We've helped the Liberal Democrats locally, we've helped Simon Hughes because he's a fantastic constituency MP.'Fighting for survival'
"We also supported Oona King who was a Labour candidate in her bid for the mayoral election and we've supported Conservative candidates too.
"Our political associations have absolutely nothing to do with us fighting for survival."
Asked whether the councillors should have been more forthright about the donations, he continued: "Planning committee is not a party political committee.
"They have to declare personal donations.
"It's got absolutely nothing to do with political donations."
The club is taking advice from a planning QC and hopes to overturn the planning permission for the second block.
Anood Al-Samerai, Leader of Southwark Lib Dems, said: "We do declare who gives us money.
"But I agree, I was a bit concerned because they were big donations.
"I contacted the borough solicitor in advance of the meeting. He came to me with advice that we did not have to declare it."
She added: "It would certainly be helpful if the advice [from central government on declaring donations] was clearer. I'm in favour of anything that makes politics more transparent."