Lib Dems warned over Ministry of Sound donations
Councillors who backed the Ministry of Sound in a planning row - having not declared £78,000 in donations from the nightclub - were forewarned they risked breaking the law, BBC London has learned.
The Ministry of Sound, in Elephant and Castle, south London, successfully fought to prevent developer Oakmayne building a residential tower block nearby.
The club feared noise complaints from the completed homes would result in it being closed down.
But the three Liberal Democrat councillors who voted to refuse planning permission in October did not tell the rest of the seven-person committee their party had received £21,000 at a local level and £57,300 nationally from the club.
When the donations were revealed last week, Southwark Lib Dem leader Anood Al-Samerai said: "I contacted the borough solicitor in advance. He came to me with advice that we did not have to declare it."
BBC London has now obtained the verbatim legal advice, which referred to the Local Government Act 2000.
It reads: "The risk is that by voting on this application they may bring themselves into disrepute or breach rules against using their position improperly to advantage themselves or someone else."'Absolutely shocking'
The advice continued: "Councillors need to ask whether they can approach this with a completely open mind and judge it on its merits irrespective of consequences for their party's funding.
"If they believe they can then they can legitimately take part in the committee.
"If they think this issue will impact on their decision, they should stand down."
Oakmayne Chairman Christopher Allen said: "This evidence casts serious doubt on the decision.
- £21,000 was donated to the Southwark Lib Dems - a "huge sum" for a local party, according to LSE expert Tony Travers
- The sums were declared to the Electoral Commission on receipt, but not to the planning committee. Labour councillors on the committee and the developer were unaware of the scale of the donations until contacted by the BBC
- Planning councillors do not have to declare party donations - because councillors do not benefit personally
- There is no evidence the club intended to sway councillors by donating
"For the committee to ignore what appears to be clear legal advice and vote against a development is absolutely shocking.
"Public confidence in local Liberal Democrats' ability to determine this application objectively has been very badly damaged."
Oakmayne is now raising the issue with the Mayor of London, who can call in planning decisions.
Mr Allen added: "Given the circumstances we hope the mayor will determine this quickly."
Ms Al-Samerai said: "I read the advice to mean there was a risk of bad publicity for the Lib Dems, but not a breach of planning rules."
She added: "Our councillors who vote on planning take their responsibility very seriously and judge each application on its merits and according to planning law.
"All donations are properly declared."
Tony Travers, an LSE local government expert, compared the councillors' decision not to declare the donations to the MPs' expenses scandal.
He said: "It's a good example of something that conforms to the letter of the law but not the spirit.
"When you're in the middle of an acrimonious planning row, perception is all."
A spokesman for Labour-run Southwark Council said: "We are confident the right advice was given and correct procedures were followed."
BBC London has also learned the nightclub has complained about the planning process.
It has said it is concerned that former Southwark Council employees advised Oakmayne's bid.
The club said these included the former leader of the council Jeremy Fraser and a former project manager for the Elephant and Castle area.
One of the architects involved is chairman of the council's design review panel, which examines potential developments in the borough.
In an official complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman, also obtained by BBC London, Ministry of Sound's Lohan Presencer said: "This is not conducive to fair decision-making.'Of desperate concern'
"An extremely close relationship exists between the council and developers, particularly Oakmayne."
Mr Presencer said it was of "desperate concern".
He continued: "Council officers seemed determined to push through these applications.
"Council officers are offered money in section 106 commitments [by which developers fund community projects if planning permission is granted].
"Southwark Council's very short of money. That could be a motivating factor."
A council spokesman said: "The Ministry of Sound have made a number of claims and we are looking in to them."
Oakmayne said: "Many talented officers move from the public to private sector - it's neither unusual nor illegal."
The Southwark Labour group is refusing to comment on the row for legal reasons.