On 19 June 2017 Taylor Wimpey organised a ‘public’ meeting about their planned demolition of Bernard Morgan House, which they want to replace with a massive luxury apartment building that will block sunlight to nearby homes, schools and a local park, as well as ruining the architectural integrity of the grade II listed buildings in the area. They invited City of London councillors and some resident group representatives from the upmarket Barbican Estate to their meeting, but none of those who will be most immediately affected received notification from them about this ‘consultation’. Among those Taylor Wimpey’s PR company Westbourne Communications seemingly failed to invite was Prior Weston School, the Friends of Fortune Street Park or the residents of Golden Lane Estate (social housing); these amenities all directly face Bernard Morgan House. In other words, many and perhaps all of those who were least likely to roll over and accept Taylor Wimpey’s proposed plans as presented weren’t invited.
It is telling that residents from the Golden Lane Estate weren’t informed of a meeting in their own community centre about a proposed development that will impact on them more than pretty much anyone else. A number of Golden Lane Estate residents have been in close contact with both Taylor Wimpey and their PR company; so their interest in the matter and contact details are known to those who organised this charade. They weren’t invited precisely because the manipulators behind this gamed ‘public’ meeting knew they had their own sensibly formed views, and were likely to ruin Westbourne Communications pathetic PR stunt.
Present at the meeting were around half a dozen Taylor Wimpey functionaries, including two from the board of directors, plus Raj Mandair from Westbourne Communications. Mandair apparently attempted to ‘manage’ this shambolic ‘event’ on behalf of the developers. The audience consisted of about 12 people including John Tomlinson (Cripplegate ward councillor), David Graves (Cripplegate ward councillor), William Pimlot (Cripplegate ward councillor), Mark Bostock (Cripplegate ward councillor), Bruce Badger (chair of the Ben Johnson House Group, a residential block in the Barbican), a few others who we believe were Barbican residents, and possibly someone from the Welsh Church that abuts Bernard Morgan House. An email from Susan Pearson asking about the meeting was circulated to the councillors present, and some who weren’t, less than twenty-four hours before it was scheduled. It isn’t clear whether or not they were invited, or if some or all of them turned up after hearing about it from a third party. Pearson, also a City of London councillor, had been invited but was in Italy and unable to attend. This exchange of emails does reveal that even some councillors were unsure as to whether Mandair ‘s inept attempt at a PR jamboree was actually taking place.
This ‘public consultation’ farce will not surprise anyone who has read pieces about Westbourne Communications such as “The Corporate PR Industry’s Sneaky War on Internet Activism” by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell dated 24 March 2014 at Vice:
In recent years, the lobbying game has changed thanks to social media websites, citizen journalism (described by one lobbyist as “a major irritant”), and online petitions capable of getting millions of signatures in a matter of hours. Among the lobbyists affected by this shift is James Bethell, whose firm, Westbourne Communications, is in the business of fighting back against what it calls the “insurgency tactics” of online campaigners (“insurgency” here meaning “having a negative opinion and a blog/Twitter account” rather than actual guerrilla warfare). Their current clients include the oil and gas company Cuadrilla, the frackers who have been trying to convince people in Lancashire and Sussex to get behind the idea of pumping a load of poisonous water under their houses. Westbourne also led the campaign to defend HS2, a proposed high-speed rail line, from English communities who’d rather there weren’t trains roaring past their homes at 125 MPH. When you’re trying to get a $60 billion railway expansion, you need approval from the UK government—which means hiring a firm like Westbourne to keep a lid on protests.
Unfortunately for lobbyists, “Now almost everyone in the country has become a self-appointed campaigner,” as Bethell said in a 2011 interview. “Everybody’s seen The West Wing and has a Google account, and therefore has both the intelligence and the strategy, plus the technology, to put together a kitchen-table campaign.”
So how do you go about fighting this scourge of democratic, grassroots activism?
“You’ve got to fight them on every street corner,” advised Bethell. “You can’t just sit and watch your opponents run around doing what they like. You’ve got to get out into the bush, using their tactics and being in their face.”…
… Westbourne advised US lobbyists of the need to “pick off” their critics with “sniper-scope accuracy”—to “shut them up,” as he explained to an audience of distinguished guests at a conference in 2012. Westbourne engages in aggressive rebuttal campaigns, which involves creating a feeling among opponents that everything they say will be picked apart. This is an “exhausting but crucial” part of successful lobbying, says Bethell.
In other words, if Taylor Wimpey were actually interested in consulting local people about their planned luxury development in Golden Lane, they wouldn’t have hired Westbourne Communications to do the job for them. Taylor Wimpey haven’t engaged Westbourne to liaise with the community, they’re paying them to stitch it up. Part of their strategy appears to be to create a divide between Golden Lane and Barbican residents. However, while Golden Lane residents have more to lose than most of those in the Barbican, many Barbican residents realise that Taylor Wimpey’s planned development will have a negative impact on them too and everyone who lives or works in the neighbourhood. Given rising anger about austerity and exploitation, Westbourne and Wimpey will find it increasingly difficult to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, even those who in other times might have looked like their natural allies.