The Mayor of London's “Boris-tastic” rally was one of the highlights of the Conservative Conference. The Tories in attendance got to enjoy watching one of the few members of their party with a personality, and the press were able to write about his lovable buffoonery. Everyone was happy. However, none of the journalists at the time noticed that Johnson was speaking in front of a banner for “Thorncliffe” – a secretive lobbying company.
I did some digging around and it turns out that the lobbyists in question are working for the Mount Pleasant luxury flats redevelopment, a controversial scheme to build 700 luxury apartments in central London. Within days of his speech, Johnson pushed through approval of the scheme.
The rally was arranged by ConservativeHome, the Conservative activist website owned by top Tory donor Lord Ashcroft. According to the site's official listing, the event was held “In partnership with Thorncliffe” – suggesting the lobbyists paid for the event. Thorncliffe’s corporate logo was also displayed on a banner behind Boris Johnson as he spoke.
When I asked Thorncliffe about their involvement with the Boris rally, the firm appeared to deny that they were directly involved, despite having their name plastered all over it. They said, “Thorncliffe sponsored the blogsite, not the Mayor of London, so any suggestion of impropriety is not only wrong but malicious.” The firm declined to expand on this statement.
Thorncliffe are political lobbyists specialising in getting planning permission and political support for developments facing opposition. Unlike most leading lobbyists, they are not a member of the industry’s self-regulating body, the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC). This means that Thorncliffe do not list their clients on the APPC register. The firm has also recently renamed itself; until this August they were known as Indigo Public Affairs. The rebranding follows a 2013 press expose which showed that Thorncliffe, then Indigo Public Affairs, was employing people, including sitting Councillors, to help developers with planning problems – for a fee.
Although their clients aren't listed on the APPC register, I was able to establish that Thorncliffe work for the Mount Pleasant development. Mount Pleasant was the largest mail sorting office in Europe, and The Royal Mail – which owns the site – is redeveloping the plot of land into luxury flats. Critics say this shows the newly privatised Royal Mail are more keen on making money than delivering letters.
The redevelopment will be hugely profitable because all the 700 flats being built are expensive, luxury units. Billy Hayes, leader of the Communication Workers Union – which represents the 1,000 posties who still work at the site – said it was “an absolute travesty that postmen and women working just next door will be priced out of this luxury development at Mount Pleasant”.
Boris Johnson, though, has always been more enthusiastic about the scheme. When Royal Mail complained that Camden and Islington councils were spending too long listening to objections to the scheme, he “called it in” – meaning Johnson over-ruled the local councils and took over powers to give the scheme planning permission himself. Defending the project, Johnson claimed it does contain 98 “affordable” flats for rent – but this stretches the definition of “affordable” to the point of meaninglessness, as two bedroom apartments look set to charge rents from £1,600 to £2,800 a month.
Thorncliffe’s involvement as lobbyists for the scheme goes back to at least 2012. A website – www.mount-pleasant.org.uk – was built for Royal Mail to promote the redevelopment. Checking the registration details via web registrar Nominet's “whois” listings, I found the website was set up by Indigo Public Affairs – now known as Thorncliffe. Close inspection of information on the Camden Council website also showed that “Indigo Public Affairs” were running the Mount Pleasant “consultation” for Royal Mail.
So on the 29th of October, it appears that the lobbyists for a controversial luxury property development paid for Boris Johnson’s biggest event at the Tory conference. Then, just four days later, Boris finally approved the Mount Pleasant scheme, prompting Green Party London Assembly member Darren Johnson to say it showed that the mayor was “in the pockets of big developers”. My investigation suggests he relies on those developers to pay for his events.
Thorncliffe/Indigo keep the details of their clients secret, but a month before they paid to have their logo feature prominently at Boris’s rally the firm showed how close they were to the London Conservatives. The lobbyists published an article by London Tory Councillor Harry Phibbs, who also works for ConservativeHome, the group that organised the Boris rally. In the article Phibbs praised “Boris London” for delivering “affordable housing”, arguing, “The mayor realises that it will be crucial to work with the private companies for this to be achieved, rather than treating them as class enemies." He also criticised Boris's predecessor Ken Livingstone for his target of 50 percent social housing in any new development.
I asked the Royal Mail if they knew their lobbyist was offering financial assistance to Boris's political career. Their spokesperson accepted that they had hired Thorncliffe for “liaison around our proposed Mount Pleasant development. This included the organisation of local consultations and public meetings”. However, Royal Mail said Thorncliffe “were expressly not involved in any lobbying of the Mayor of London, the GLA or local authorities on Royal Mail’s behalf”.
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