Calls for panel probe into Camden's ‘North Sea Oil' property deals

Labour backbencher questions whether his colleagues want the Community Investment Programme to avoid scrutiny

Friday, 22nd February 2019

Thomas Gardiner

Labour councillor Thomas Gardiner

A LABOUR councillor suggested on Tuesday evening that it seemed as if the council “wanted to avoid scrutiny” of its flagship investment programme of land deals.

Camden is facing calls to hold a “scrutiny panel” probe – similar to the investigation into school exclusions it announced this week – into the Community Investment Programme, known as CIP.

It has also been described by Labour as Camden’s “North Sea oil” strategy and involves raising investment from the council’s portfolio of land and property, which commands a high value due to its central London location.

With a series of deals under way and in the pipeline – projects include the overhaul of former council offices in West Hampstead, the regeneration of Maiden Lane and a new skyscraper in Somers Town – some concerns have been raised about the council’s use of the property market during uncertain economic conditions.

A familiar objection has also been the claim that handing parts of estates to developers and private housing amounts to the sale of family silver, an accusation always resolutely rejected by the leadership, who instead celebrate the scheme as a way to raise money during austerity.

At the cross-party finance scrutiny committee, some Labour councillors, enthused by the benefits of CIP, suggested the programme could be examined by backbenchers simply with an officer report and regeneration chief Councillor Danny Beales taking questions.

Others, however, said they wanted a more in-depth analysis requiring input from experts and residents to see whether CIP could be improved.

Labour councillor Ranjit Singh said the council needed to look at the “nitty gritty” of the programme, and “drill down” into the detail.

Labour councillor Thomas Gardiner, meanwhile, said: “Genuinely, it feels a bit like people want to avoid scrutiny in this area.” He had earlier said a “one-shot report would be a set piece” and that a panel would be a chance to look at ways to make CIP “more sustainable and affordable”.

His group colleague Alison Kelly said councillors needed to be “mindful” of the cost of a full panel investigation.

She could be heard saying “not at all” when Cllr Gardiner made his comments about scrutiny. A decision as to whether to embark on the probe will be decided in April.

Cllr Alison Kelly

Group whip Councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli had said he was “not keen on a panel if we don’t know the clear line of inquiry, and what we are going to achieve with a panel that we are not going to with a report.”

Green councillor Sian Berry has set up her own watchdog website monitoring CIP, while Conservative group leader Oliver Cooper said “all councillors should welcome extra scrutiny of the council’s programme – especially when there’s £1billion on the line.”

He added: “Camden cannot continue to haemorrhage money through CIP and fall short of expectations year after year.”

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