Tricky times for Tom Brake, London’s last remaining Liberal Democrat MP, who together with his party colleagues running the council in Sutton have got themselves into a row over suggestions that a landmark public building is being handed over for around £1m less than its true market value.
Sutton’s Lib Dems have agreed a favourable deal with EcoLocal for The Lodge — the charity's home. Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington, is a trustee of EcoLocal, a not-for-profit in which he has no pecuniary interest.
EcoLocal will pay Sutton council £600,000 for a 125-year lease for the building, which has been valued as worth up to £1.7 million on the rapidly rising London property market.
The charity plans to redevelop The Lodge, including building nine money-spinning flats in the property, which is surrounded by parkland and a conservation area. Judging by local property sales, EcoLocal might expect to sell the flats for at least £4m. That’s money which Sutton’s opposition Conservatives believe the council could be generating itself, if it undertook the redevelopment work, with the proceeds going towards the hard-pressed local authority budget.
Among the Sutton Lib Dem councillors who took the decision to lease The Lodge to EcoLocal were two members of Brake’s own parliamentary staff, Callum Morton and Manuel Abellan. Neither Morton nor Abellan declared an interest in the EcoLocal scheme, they say because there was no interest to declare. Brake has dismissed complaints about his and his staff’s conduct as "smears" from Sutton Tories.
Before last weekend, lawyers acting for Brake issued a letter to the Guido Fawkes website, which had highlighted the EcoLocal deal, and to the opposition Conservative group on Sutton council, demanding an apology.
Brake’s complaint about the Guido Fawkes articles is that they have referred to EcoLocal as his "company", when he maintains that it is a charity.
"I am disappointed, but not surprised at Conservative efforts to smear me," Brake told the Sutton Guardian. "They must be desperate if they have to pretend that a charity and not-for-profit company I am a trustee of, and have no pecuniary interest in, is ‘my company’.
"I am, however, surprised that they have decided to oppose plans supported by a wide range of local groups to keep the Lodge partly as a community asset, and seem to be favouring instead allowing private developers to build flats in the Ecology Centre grounds."
The lawyers’ letter to the Sutton Conservatives also included a demand for £500, to be paid towards Brake’s legal costs. At time of publication, Sutton Tories had yet to decide whether to call Brake’s bluff and discuss the matter of the £1m discount on The Lodge in court.
By Steven Downes
For more on this story see Inside Croydon.