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The Dragon Says: Wisley Garden Village Bid Investigation – Where is the Accountability?

Published on: 14 Jun, 2021
Updated on: 19 Jun, 2021

Things went very wrong but no one can be blamed.

The council was misled but nothing need be done.

The council was brought into disrepute but “…the issues raised do not require any further action to be taken by the council.”

Well, almost nothing. Despite independent investigator Mark Heath’s conclusion to his report of the second investigation into the Wisley Garden Village funding bid, the council is going to consider: constitutional changes so that “key decisions” are properly handled;  how it can ensure meetings involving lead members, officers and the private sector are minuted; and how to ensure failings in transparency are announced as soon as possible.

All well and good but the council was brought into disrepute. Is no one to be held accountable?

Cllr Fiona White (Lib Dem, Guildford West) said: “The damage that has been done to the council in the eyes of our residents is going to take a long time to heal and that is very, very sad.”

It is more than sad. If we lose trust in our democratic institutions, in our government administration, it is very serious.

See also: ‘Wisley Bid Errors Must Not Recur’ – GBC to Consider Constitutional Changes

But how can we trust a council that never seems able to get to the bottom of affairs that have been called into question? We have seen a series of investigations over the last decade that find “no wrongdoing”, most risibly in the case of Monika Juneja, who was later convicted in the Old Bailey of forgery and pretending to be a barrister. (See: There Are Lessons To Learn From The Juneja Case – The Council Must Admit It. )

The investigations lack rigour. They produce a partial, incomplete version of the evidence and then the investigator, instead of simply presenting the evidence, also announces the verdict.

Let us look at one instance from this investigation.

Mark Heath, in the report that took 18 months to deliver, uncovered that a meeting had been held to discuss the Wisley Garden Village bid on October 19, 2018. At the meeting were:

  • Cllr Paul Spooner (leader and lead councillor for Planning)
  • Cllr Matt Furniss (deputy leader)
  • [an unnamed planning officer]
  • [an unnamed planning officer]
  • Mike Murray (Causeway Land (representing WPIL))
  • Charlie Collins (Savills (representing WPIL))
  • Ruth Bryan (Savills (representing WPIL))

The report states: “It was agreed… between the council and Wisley airfield development promoters that Wisley Property Investments Ltd (WPIL) would lead on producing the draft bid document which would then be passed to the council for comment.”

If that was agreed at the meeting, could the true authorship of the bid document not be known by those present? If so, how? We don’t know because as Mr Heath reported: “There were no agreed minutes arising from the meeting.”

A Freedom of Information request had already produced this email, with redactions, from the former head of planning Tracey Coleman:

Who was at the second meeting referred to? Why was the email classified “RESTRICTED”? Why did the meetings need to be kept secret, even from councillors? In fact, if the bid/proposal was such a good thing why not issue a press release?

Six weeks later, on December 4, Cllr Paul Spooner, in front of the full council, in response to a question from ward councillor Colin Cross about authorship of the bid said: “The primary authors are the Planning Policy Team at Guildford Borough Council.  I guess I don’t have to individually name them, but I think two or three of them took part in putting this together under the direction of Tracey Coleman.”

Cllr Spooner maintains that he had not known the truth about who had really written the bid.

Neither had his deputy, Matt Furniss, known about the provenance of the bid document or the letter he took to the SCC leader, drafted by the agents of WPIL, for signature.

But if that is true what did the council leaders do when the truth was revealed? Did they investigate? Was there any sanction for those in the planning department who had held back the truth from them? There does not appear to have been.

And, by the way, were Savills paid for their services? Incredibly, the council is unable to say. If they were not paid why not? Surely the council did not want to be obligated to the agents of a developer who was expecting to make a planning application.

Tracey Coleman stayed on until the summer of 2020, leaving with a pay-off, reputed to be in six figures, and a non-disclosure agreement or “gagging order”.

​She was interviewed by Mark Heath. What did she tell him? What did the other planning officers say and who were they? Why can’t we know? Are they frightened of retribution? If so, what does that say about the council?

Cllr Spooner says he is the victim of a “witch hunt” but that is not just an exaggeration; it is to turn the meaning of the term on its head. A witch hunt is where a forgone guilty verdict is reached by twisted interpretation and made up evidence. Instead, we want the truth, the whole truth and those culpable held accountable.

Both the Lib Dems and R4GV pledged to introduce more openness at GBC. We need openness about what has happened as well as what is happening. We need the “culture change” they agreed was necessary.

But the culture remains and the legacy of the last administration lives on through the Local Plan.

We expected more. Delivery is overdue.

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Responses to The Dragon Says: Wisley Garden Village Bid Investigation – Where is the Accountability?

  1. Valerie Thompson Reply

    June 14, 2021 at 9:26 am

    A question to Mr Spooner was raised by me at the Dragon Hustings meeting shortly before the local elections in 2019, about the Saville’s letter.

    At this meeting, Mr Spooner appeared to squirm and directed his answer to the panel, chaired by Martin Giles rather than the audience. His response was woolly and uninformative, with a notable avoidance of accepting that he had known about the said letter. It was a telling performance.

  2. John Perkins Reply

    June 14, 2021 at 9:38 am

    We are unlikely to get more while the main party of central government is funded by developers and has total power to build, build, build (more recently expressed as build back better, greener and more “feminine”).

    Planning officers are led from the top, where sits a man accused of contravening his own lockdown regulations and who overruled the Planning Inspectorate to approve a luxury development for a party donor.

  3. Peta Malthouse Reply

    June 21, 2021 at 3:16 am

    I’m afraid this simply reflects the policy of the party in power at Westminster. Their answer to the housing crisis is just “build, build, build”, leaving it in the hands of their political donors to establish speed and type of development.

    Airy words about “affordable housing” mean nothing. The term has been watered down by the party over the years to mean only something that is a bit cheaper than the market rate, in as many numbers as can developers get away with, once planning permission has been obtained.

    It is driven by the need to meet huge housing numbers for the Local Plan to fit in with government policies encouraging urban villages on green belt land. In the meantime, they mouth the lie that they are protecting the green belt.

    What we need is the right sort of housing in huge numbers to include social housing. There is a huge gap now between those who work hard on full-time contracts yet still require universal credit and the people the government claim to be helping, ie first-time buyers etc.

    The housing policy was always broken because all it does is address the profit “needs” of the big builders. It won’t help the majority of home seekers.

  4. David Roberts Reply

    June 21, 2021 at 11:30 am

    Tone from the top is everything, and the tone from our present Prime Minister is one of slippery mendacity. Populist politics inevitably brings declining standards in public life. But local government has been a nest of corruption for a long time. The Juneja, Dongying and Garden Village episodes were only what you’d expect of single-party rule on its last legs – Guildford’s very own little Watergates.

    I take the purist view that nothing but total probity will do in public office. Guildford is not short of people of spotless reputation. It would be a great mercy to the community if others, like the undead Cllrs Spooner and Furniss, made room for them by getting out of public life, if only to help their own party’s fortunes.

    At the Old Bailey in 2015, Monika Juneja escaped prison thanks to some last-minute character references cynically provided by the then leader and managing director of Guildford council respectively. Their key argument was that her crimes were mitigated by her public service. Prosecuting counsel might have pointed out that, on the contrary, they were aggravated by it, since they involved a breach of public trust.

    When it comes to ethical standards, many people (apparently including GBC investigators) make no distinction between local politicians and estate agents or second-hand car salespeople. It is even a badge of a certain kind of worldly wisdom to say that all politicians are equally dishonest. This is lazy and wrong. Public service is not business; it is a privilege and a sacred trust. Until voters insist on high standards, they will continue to elect the liars and chancers they claim to despise.

    • Ben Paton Reply

      June 21, 2021 at 10:36 pm

      Dead right.

  5. William Brewster Reply

    June 21, 2021 at 3:50 pm

    The reality is we desperately need housing in the South East and there are thousands of families in Surrey who need social housing. Taylor Wimpy offer a massive percentage of social housing so get planning permission.

    The former airfield is a mess and the fact a handful of people living next to it want to walk all over it and complain every time someone wants to do something with it needs to stop.

    I have bad news for the residents of Ockham who do nothing but complain about the Airfield. The vast majority of them moved into Ockham long after the land was sold to developers and they had the chance to not buy next to what was obviously a prime development site.

    The original families of Ockham are long gone. Maybe it’s time to stop complaining or move as there will be lots of families soon happy to live in Ockham.

    • Jules Cranwell Reply

      June 23, 2021 at 1:39 pm

      What is the source of the statement that “Taylor Wimpey offer a massive percentage of social housing”. They may offer to build some “affordable housing”, but as has been seen before it can be argued that a development is not sufficiently “financially viable” and reduce the percentage.

      I see no evidence of social housing in the plans, only a vague commitment to build some “affordable” houses, ie at 80% of the prevailing prices. So the lowest house price will be in excess of 400,000. How truly affordable is that?

      Also, where is the evidence that the former Wisley airfield is “a mess”. It is not, it is 90% highly fertile farmland, producing the equivalent of five million loaves of bread per annum.

    • Ben Paton Reply

      June 25, 2021 at 12:10 am

      Wisley airfield was not a “prime development site” when Wharfland (a Jersey company) purchased it in 2007, or later when Wisley Investment Properties (a Cayman Islands company) bought it for £7 million after Wharfland went into creditors voluntary liquidation.

      It was then in the green belt. The adjacent Ockham & Wisley Commons had been acquired before World War 2 by Surrey County Council, with contributions from London County Council for the express purpose of putting it into the green belt.

      It was, and remains, Grade II and Grade III agricultural land.

      Which “original families” is Mr Brewster referring to? Most homeowners in Ockham acquired their homes long before Wharfland came along.

  6. David Roberts Reply

    June 22, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    The subject of The Dragon’s comment is dishonesty and lack of transparency in public office. How ever strong the case for new housebuilding may or may not be, it does not justify this.

  7. Annie Cross Reply

    June 23, 2021 at 12:31 am

    Taylor Wimpey is not offering a massive amount of social housing at the former Wisley airfield, but 40% “affordable” housing, defined as homes being sold at approximately 20-25% below market value, as against rented social housing.

    “Affordable” homes are generally purchased outright or as part buy/part rent, and in Surrey are often beyond the means of most on low incomes.

    Social housing is much needed in Guildford Borough and throughout the country. For decades councils were forced to sell their social housing and not allowed to use that income to replenish the dwindling stock, thereby creating the social housing shortage (thanks Maggie, et al).

    Taylor Wimpey has never mentioned providing social housing as this is the responsibility of government and local councils, the latter having their hands tied for decades. Until government fully remove these restrictions so councils are totally free to belatedly use funds from this source, nothing will change and there will continue to be a shortage.

    So social housing at the airfield is not on the agenda.

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