IS it controversial that Abdul Hai, one of the ten most senior councillors at Camden Council has taken a director job at the company behind the giant redevelopment of Hawley Wharf? He is breaking no laws by accepting the role. He was not involved in the planning process which ultimately handed Market Tech the keys to the Lock. He did not influence the council one way or another when consent was sought. And, through leader Georgia Gould, he openly told the Labour group that he had secured a new job and it meant that he would have to drop some of the duties in his cabinet portfolio. All boxes ticked.
A handful on the backbenches, however, are not overly impressed and see the company as one of a very small number of firms that it would be preferable, for appearances sake, not to have a councillor working for while at the same time serving in Cllr Gould’s cabinet. Their worries are not about the law – no rules have been broken. No, they are more worried about perception and how it may trickle down to their own weekly work.
The frowners fear there is a chance that when a punter turns up at one of their surgeries upset that a big building of luxury flats is going to dominate their street for ever more, there will be some suspicion from the outset that the council will side with the developers, regardless of where the development is or who is behind it. That’s an image that individual councillors can end up spending a fair amount of energy trying to erase from the minds of amateur conspiracy theorists, or even those who at one time or another have felt aggrieved by a planning decision that didn’t go the way they wished.
We’ve been here before a little over the years with councillors who occasionally work for firms promoting controversial developments in other areas of London. These projects and this work may be completely unconnected to anything happening in Camden, but risks the impression that the Town Hall is in some way in thrall of developers.
The fact that the work going around Camden Lock – take a walk down there this week and see how quickly its sprouting storeys – divides opinion again isn’t relevant to Abdul’s career prospects or the legalities, but it doesn’t help reassure those with an axe to the grind.
Hawley Wharf, after all, is a little different from King’s Cross; the latter was a crater in the ground which had been left unresolved for so long that councillors seemed desperate for work to begin there, whatever was planned. We can have the debate about whether there should’ve been more housing and less Googletronic offices on the railwaylands another day, but you can’t get away from the fact that anything would’ve been better than what was there before. In Camden Town, critics say they will soon be mourning the loss of one of the country’s most famous bohemian quarter. Their objections have often been characterised as a fear of or a dislike of change, albeit by people who in turn can’t see the attraction in weed leaf bandanas, incense, furry handcuffs and terrifying tattoos. We’ll see.
In the days since the New Journal reported Cllr Hai had taken the new job, there has been a fair bit of online interest. Why should he worry about what anonymous people on the internet say? As they are so often anonymous, we do not know if they represent the opinions simply of a web crank, or the tip of a pervading public view that the crossover between councillor and developer in any form is at risk of being too great.
Most people, in truth, will hardly bat an eyelid and certainly Cllr Hai – who needs to work in Camden to qualify to be a councillor here, as he lives in south London – does not think there is controversy here at all. If he thought it was a problem, he wouldn’t be carrying on in two jobs. It was not deliberate, we’ve been told, that when a message was sent around the Labour group explaining his change in circumstances the name of the company was omitted. Some learned what his actual job now was by reading the CNJ.
He is adamant that ‘if they asked’, he told his colleagues and it was not standard practice for councillors declare every change to their employers. The retort to that is that not all councillors are in both a powerful position at the Town Hall – and now working for a company changing the face of NW1.
The backbench whisper, feint as it may be, is that Cllr Gould missed a chance to cement her new authority as leader by encouraging Cllr Hai to relinquish his role in her cabinet, thus avoiding any possibility of a negative perception about the links between the council and developers. Instead, she twisted the cabinet she had only just constructed to make sure it all still fitted together. Her fans did say flexibility was a virtue.