Southwark Lib Dems face questions over Ministry of Sound donations: 3 important points to consider

by Stephen Tall on November 8, 2011

Southwark Lib Dem councillors and local MP Simon Hughes have been in the spotlight the past 24 hours following their decisio to oppose a planning application objected to by the Ministry of Sound, a prominent donor to the party. BBC News reports:

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. 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.

Three comments on this:

1) The BBC’s report is partial. Only right at the foot of the (long) piece do they allow a quote from Anood Al-Samerai, Leader of Southwark Lib Dems, which offers some much-needed context:

“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. … 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.”

That the councillors sought proper advice before the meeting is a fact the BBC fail to mention, presumably deliberately, and places their actions in a different light. Many will feel they should still have declared the donations in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. However, the BBC’s report implies they sought to cover the donations up, which is a very different thing.

2) Ask yourself ‘Whose interests are being served here?’ A property developer loses a planning application for residential development; suddenly there is extensive media coverage implying political impropriety. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to see who has been feeding the media the story that best plays to the ‘all politicians are crooks’ news agenda. Again, many will think it’s Southwark Lib Dems’ fault for placing themselves in this position — but the journalists might have been better advised to be a little more sceptical of the property developer’s motivations before choosing their side.

3) This is a reminder of the need to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest, even if there are none in reality. I am sure Simon Hughes and the councillors involved have acted totally properly throughout; but I’m a Lib Dem so it’s not my opinion which matters. Many of those who do read this story will think ‘there’s no smoke without fire’: the laziest cliche in the book, maybe, but if even the BBC buys it that should be enough to make us stop, think, and ask ourselves the honest question: how would this look in the eyes of a cynical journalist trying to sell a story?