Guest post by Bassishaw councillor Graeme Harrower
This is an account of the meeting on 13 January 2022 of the Court of Common Council of the City of London Corporation. The video recording can be found here.
What happened in that meeting should concern anyone who believes in democratic local government.
The City of London Court of Common Council.
LORD MAYOR BREACHES PRINCIPLES OF PUBLIC LIFE
At the Court’s previous meeting on 9 December 2021, Edward Lord had used a standing order to propose that the Court should not consider a controversial planning application which had been properly referred to it, and had argued that the Court was not a suitable forum for considering a planning application. Vincent Keaveny, the Lord Mayor, was asked by another member (the writer of this article) to disallow the use of that standing order on the ground provided by the order that it was premature. He refused to do so, and gave no reasons for this decision. As a consequence, those who supported the referral were prevented from saying a single word to rebut Edward Lord’s arguments about the Court not being a suitable forum. The effect of the Lord Mayor’s decision was that the Court voted on a proposal without being allowed to hear the other side.
Vincent Keaveny, Lord Mayor of London.
At the beginning of the meeting on 13 January 2022, Mark Bostock asked (at 7:31 of the recording):
“Will the Lord Mayor now provide the reasons for his decision, in accordance with good administrative practice, and will he explain why he would not allow the Court at least to hear the arguments in favour of considering this item, after it had just heard the arguments against doing so?”
The Town Clerk consulted the Lord Mayor out of range of the microphones, and made the following statements (at 8:43):
- “Standing orders are very clear on this point that his decision is final” (which wasn’t being questioned – what was being requested was reasons for his decision), and
- “on this occasion he does not wish to explain the decision that he came to”.
By refusing to give the reasons for his decision, Vincent Keaveny breached two of the Principles of Public Life, namely “openness” and “accountability”. Those Principles form an integral part of the Members’ Code of Conduct. Will the City Solicitor, in performance of his role as Monitoring Officer, now initiate proceedings against Vincent Keaveny for breach of the Code of Conduct?
COURT REFUSES TO FUND THE TIMELY RENOVATION OF THE CITY’S HOUSING ESTATES
Not even the Court’s leaders dispute that the City Corporation neglected the maintenance of its own housing estates for decades. It is now carrying out renovation works, but slowly and with no end date in sight. In the meantime, the estates continue to decay, increasing the cost of their renovation. There is inadequate funding in the Corporation’s local authority “Housing Revenue Account” to complete the current five year programme that was supposed to finish this year, and no provision for other necessary projects.
The Corporation differs from other local authorities by exercising public (including local authority) functions while also representing private commercial interests in the financial City. It has a £2.6 billion quasi-public fund called “City’s Cash” which is separate from its local authority “City Fund”. City’s Cash has been accumulated over centuries, and in recent decades has been used to fund the promotion of the financial City (oddly, since the financial City is well able to afford its own promotion).
On 7 June 2021 Sue Pearson called for City’s Cash to be used to help fund the timely renovation of the City’s housing estates. Her call, supported by Marianne Fredericks, was met with hostility by a majority of members at the meetings of:
- the Community and Children’s Services Committee (chaired by Ruby Sayed) on 11 June 2021,
- the governing Policy and Resources Committee (chaired by Catherine McGuinness) on 8 July 2021, and
- the Community and Children’s Services Committee again on 24 September 2021.
On 2 September 2021 Sue Pearson made her call public through the Golden Lane Estate website: http://www.goldenlaneestate.org/profiles/blogs/city-of-london-corporation-fails-its-residents.
At the Court’s meeting on 13 January 2022, Sue Pearson proposed and Marianne Fredericks seconded this motion:
“that the City Corporation explores the use of City’s Cash to fund the acceleration of the renovation of the housing estates which it owns both within and outside the boundaries of the City, so that it completes this renovation as expeditiously as it carries out non-residential projects like the Fleet Street ‘Justice Quarter’.
“This Court accordingly further resolves that its relevant committees now be instructed to bring forward proposals establishing how this can be achieved, as soon as possible.”
When Sue Pearson spoke (at 38:17) to introduce the motion, she made these points:
“It is a matter of general policy that the City Corporation does not use the income or assets of City’s Cash to fund expenditure which could be met from the public funds but, at various times, the Court has chosen to fund or support activities from City’s Cash, like the grant funding of academies and the courts element of the Fleet Street project.
As the Court has chosen to fund these projects – which are public services – out of City’s Cash, surely it can do the same to provide an even more important public service as landlord to its residents with the provision of decent, dry, warm, insulated homes as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Last year the Court set another precedent by choosing to use up to £50 million of City’s Cash for a pandemic recovery fund for small businesses in the City, who have over the decades not suffered the same neglect as City residents. They have however profited from their location within the City. A balance of £37.5 million is currently unspent. £37.5 million would go a long way to ensuring that the major works programme could be accelerated and effectively managed.”
Marianne Fredericks then spoke (at 41:20), and made these points:
“Our housing officers are doing the very best they can with the resources they have – and it’s the lack of resources that needs addressing.
It’s the lack of resources that is the issue as we read in tomorrow’s papers for the Housing Sub-Committee. On top of a long list of delayed projects, there are a further £30 million pounds of new projects identified by a condition survey, which are currently unfunded.
Resources need to be addressed, and exploring the use of City’s Cash is the only option on the table. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Ruby Sayed, Chair of the Community and Children’s Services Committee, spoke (at 43:48) to oppose the motion. She found it:
“grossly discourteous that members bringing this motion didn’t even bother speaking to me or even my Deputy Chair or even attempt any kind of consultation … I would have expected to have had this discussion first at Housing Sub [-Committee] and then if required at Community and Children’s Services [Committee] before anything being escalated to this forum. It’s disappointing to see appropriate channels being circumvented, and as a result the Court now having to try and debate things without having the relevant information to hand. I don’t think it’s fair to my committee. In fact, it is tantamount to being offensive to Community and Children’s Services … I don’t believe it’s fair to the members of this Honourable Court to be expected to make decisions on the hoof on what are complex matters. I would suggest this motion is being brought on factually incorrect information or matters are being presented out of context.”
She then recited in detail what renovation works had been done to date, and listed in detail the excuses for the delays, until the Town Clerk prompted her to stop because she was overrunning her allotted time.
In taking offence, the Chair seems to have overlooked that:
- the sponsors of the motion, Sue Pearson and Marianne Fredericks, did in fact bring its subject to the attention of her committee twice (on 11 June and 24 September 2021), when a majority of members – including herself – were hostile to it;
- her committee does not, in any case, have authority to use City’s Cash;
- the subject of the motion was accordingly brought to the Policy and Resources Committee, which has that authority, on 8 July 2021, but a majority of members were hostile to it, and sent it back to her committee;
- “appropriate channels” were therefore followed, not “circumvented” ;
- after exhausting those channels, the sponsors had no option but to “escalate” the matter to the Court;
- the Chair could not reasonably expect them to consult her in advance of bringing the motion because she had repeatedly made clear her hostility to its subject;
- “my Deputy Chair”, Randall Anderson, did in fact support the motion;
- the Court did have “the relevant information to hand” to debate the matter: it was provided in the website post on 2 September 2021 and Sue Pearson sent to all members on the day before the Court meeting extracts from two reports to the Housing Sub-Committee (the full versions of which are available to anyone on the Corporation’s website);
- this was not a “complex matter”: the Housing Revenue Account does not have sufficient funds for the timely renovation of the estates, and City’s Cash does (not least the unused balance of £37.5 million of the small business recovery fund);
- the Court was not being asked “to make decisions on the hoof”: the motion asked that it “explores the use of City’s Cash” and that “its relevant committees now be instructed to bring forward proposals establishing how this can be achieved”;
- the Court has in any case shown no disinclination “to make decisions on the hoof” concerning other uses of City’s Cash:
- on 4 March 2021, it approved the use of up to £50 million for the small business recovery fund following a motion put by Michael Snyder, although several members had no notice of his motion before the meeting and no “relevant information” was provided; and
- only 20 minutes before the sponsors put their motion at the meeting on 13 January 2022, Jamie Ingham Clark, the Chair of Finance, and Catherine McGuinness, the Chair of Policy (= Leader of the Council), agreed – with no member objecting – to explore using City’s Cash for the benefit of Afghan refugees (at 18:48);
- the Chair’s “suggestion” that the motion “is being brought on factually incorrect information” [although she had earlier suggested members had no “relevant information”] or “matters are being presented out of context” was not substantiated, nor could it be, because the information provided was verifiably correct and presented in context;
- the Chair’s detailed recitation of the works done to date entirely missed the point of the motion, which was that they were being done too slowly, and the delay was increasing the cost; and
- she did not address any of the many specific points made in the website post or the sponsors’ speeches.
Ruby Sayed with Vincent Keaveny, current Lord Mayor of London.
John Tomlinson then spoke (at 51:19) in favour of the motion, as did John Scott (at 53:06).
Ian Luder followed (at 55:04). He began by saying “We all know why this motion is here at this time. It’s because we are two cycles away from ‘all out’ elections” [the elections of 100 councillors in March 2022]. In smearing the sponsors with the insinuation that they brought the motion to seek electoral advantage for themselves, he seems to have overlooked that:
- the subject of the motion was repeatedly raised by them within the Corporation many months earlier, and had the relevant committees responded positively, the whole matter would have been resolved long before anyone’s mind turned to the elections;
- at the last elections in 2017, Sue Pearson received 558 votes – being 100+ more than any of the other 99 councillors (several of whom received votes in double digits) – so she hardly needs to engage in electoral stunts; and
- Marianne Fredericks has no housing estates in her ward.
Continuing with smears, Ian Luder:
- said “the mover of the motion sent us – extracts only, I have to say – from the reports [to the Housing Sub-Committee] tomorrow”, implying that Sue Pearson was misrepresenting facts by taking them out of context: he did not substantiate this, nor could he, as anyone reading the reports (which are readily accessible on the Corporation’s website) can check for themselves; and
- he referred to “brickbats thrown at them [the Community and Children’s Services Committee] today”, indicating that the sponsors were attacking that committee: there is not a word either of them has written or said which substantiates this.
He said he believed the motion should be defeated, and spoke at length to urge the Community and Children’s Services Committee to deal urgently with fire safety in the City’s tower blocks, blaming residents for the delay. His approach was contradictory: supporting the motion would result in the fire safety works being accelerated as well as the many other necessary works. This contradiction became express when he said at the end of his speech that he thought there was a case for looking at City’s Cash to be used specifically for fire safety works. He then said City’s Cash shouldn’t be used for any of the other works, but didn’t say why, or address any of the many specific points made by the sponsors. He ended by repeating his criticism of residents, which had nothing to do with the motion.
William Pimlott spoke (at 59:40) in favour of the motion. He mentioned that he would not be standing for re-election, and dismissed Ian Luder’s electioneering allegation. He said that “In the discussion of property portfolios and amounts of money, we lose sight of the human story. This is a story of cold, damp, discomfort, misery … in a very rich borough.”
Jamie Ingham Clark, Chair of Finance, spoke (at 1:00:56) against the motion, because he thought “it was asking the Court to sanction a course of action which I believe will be detrimental to the overall finances of the Corporation, and therefore its ability to support all its stakeholders”. He didn’t address the fact that City’s Cash is already used extensively for the benefit of all the City’s other “stakeholders”: big businesses in the financial City, small businesses through the recovery fund, cultural projects, the Court’s own members (on whom a third of a million pounds are spent in a normal year to provide them with free/subsidised lunches and drinks), etc. Nor did he explain why a suggestion that City’s Cash be used even to a small extent for the benefit of residents, and especially the least advantaged, should be rejected as if it were improper.
His speech was challenging to follow. What light was shed by saying “the envelope is the envelope is the envelope”? He claimed that “City’s Cash is already overstretched” and we are “asset rich, but cash poor”. So why doesn’t the Corporation, which is a major property owner, sell some of its assets? What is the point of an institution that has public authority status being “asset rich” if it doesn’t use even a little of that wealth for the benefit of the public for whom it is most responsible, namely the residents? If it doesn’t want to have public status, why doesn’t it relinquish it? The Corporation’s public functions could be transferred to other councils by an act of parliament. If it doesn’t want to sell its assets, why not reduce its spending on the financial City, which doesn’t need its money, and on the dining and wining of its members, especially as they’re all now entitled to claim an allowance of £7,500 per year? They could use this allowance to buy their own lunches at City sandwich shops, and thus support small businesses, something the recovery fund has in many cases failed to do because the conditions for obtaining support are so onerous and the process is not user-friendly.
The Chair of Finance made the surprising assertion that the balance of £37.5 million of the small business recovery fund was “in fact … no longer there”, when in a meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee only four weeks earlier he had participated in a decision to reopen that fund.
He did not address any of the many specific points made by the sponsors.
Jamie Ingham Clark.
Mary Durcan, Chair of the Housing Sub-Committee, spoke (at 1:06:24) to say she thought “we have a programme which should be celebrated and of which of which the Court and its committee [presumably Community and Children’s Services] should be proud … I invite anyone who is not familiar with our housing to visit our estates … Unfortunately, we have not yet had an opportunity to discuss the funding of phase two of the major works programme … our plans are fully funded. We do not need to decry our achievements to make an argument that we need to use City’s Cash: this is a distraction.”
Residents on the City’s housing estates are familiar with them because they live there, and would certainly not join Mary Durcan in celebrating the current glacial programme that has no end date in sight. The rest of her statements are mutually contradictory. Like the previous speakers who opposed the motion, she did not address any of the many specific points made by the sponsors.
At this point, the debate following the sponsors’ speeches had lasted for 26 minutes. It was clear other members wished to speak. Then this happened …
Termination of the debate
Edward Lord – the member who had used a standing order at the Court meeting on 9 December 2021 to propose that the referred planning application not be considered by the Court – now used another standing order to propose (at 1:09:54) that members should vote on this motion without further debate. The voices of members who had not yet spoken would therefore not be heard. The proposal was seconded by Christopher Hayward, the Deputy Chair of Policy, who is expected to become the Chair of Policy in April.
Vincent Keaveny, the Lord Mayor, was asked by another member (the writer of this article) to disallow the use of this standing order on the ground provided by the order that it was “premature”. It was obviously “premature”, because:
- other members had not yet spoken;
- it was an important subject; and
- the meeting was not under time pressure: immediately before the motion was introduced, the Court had spent 16 minutes listening to various members congratulating two members who had received a knighthood and an OBE, and praising two members and two officers who had resigned/retired.
The Lord Mayor nevertheless refused (again) to disallow the use of the standing order and omitted (again) to give reasons for his decision (at 1:14:31).
The Court voted by an unspecified majority to terminate the debate.
Following a division being called, members’ votes were taken by roll call (at 1:20:06). The motion was lost by 75 votes to 19. Here’s how the members voted:
Some of the votes deserve comment.
Prem Goyal, the alderman of Portsoken ward, voted against the motion, and thus against the interests of many of his constituents who are residents on the City’s Middlesex Street Estate. He also voted against their interests at the previous Court meeting on 9 December 2021 when he supported the proposal that a planning application which would blight many of their lives should not be considered by the Court. With this voting record, his prospects of re-election next year can be accurately assessed as nil.
Jeremy Mayhew, a councillor in Aldersgate ward, voted against the motion. Although there is no social housing in his ward, which mainly consists of part of the Barbican, most of his constituents are residents. Voting against residents’ interests generally (and not supporting the planning petition that was particularly popular with Barbican residents) is not an intuitive approach to being re-elected in two months’ time.
Vivienne Littlechild, a councillor in Cripplegate ward, voted against the motion, and thus against the interests of many of her constituents who are residents on the City’s Golden Lane Estate. She is presumably not intending to stand for re-election.
Mary Durcan, another councillor in Cripplegate ward, voted against the motion, and thus against the interests of her constituents on Golden Lane Estate. It is known that she intends to stand for election in a business ward, so she can safely ignore her present constituents.
David Graves, the alderman of Cripplegate ward, voted for the motion. That was surprising, because when Sue Pearson made the call for City’s Cash to be used for the timely renovation of the City’s housing estates in her website post on 2 September 2021, he opposed it. He went so far as to express distaste for her “campaigning”, which is a normal part of democratic politics. Look at his comments below the post, and how he tried to walk them back after a resident backlash. His own term of office expired in June 2020, but the aldermen extended their terms using the pandemic as an excuse, and have still not announced when the long overdue elections for some of them will be held.
The header shows flooding on the Golden Lane Estate podium. It was posted on the Golden Lane At Risk website with the comment: “This small lake below appears every time there is rain and often remains for days at a time, ensuring the podium over the garages and underground access road below is soaked through.” This was after the post noted: “Water rots concrete. Much of Golden Lane Estate is made of reinforced concrete – there is brick infill but a lot of structural concrete framing to both the flats and the podium over garages. Keeping water out of concrete is essential if the steel reinforcing rods are not to rust inside. If they do, they expand as they rust they cause cracks. Once there are cracks more water gets into them and the rust and cracking cycle rapidly accelerates, leading eventually to structural failure. The architects knew this and provided extensive drainage., ensuring the water ran off the concrete into gullies and drains. However the Loss Assessors find that the City of London officers charged with looking after the estate do not understand their buildings.There is water in many places at many times – large ponds of it, often for days or even weeks after rain.” Read the full post here.