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Critical changes to the terms of reference and administrative arrangements for the independent investigation into the provenance of and contract for the Waterfront Development Project (the Arora hotel/apartment complex) in the riverfront Staines Conservation Area have been agreed by Spelthorne Borough Council (as reported in our Residents Newsletter of 15 October). Here we set out more detail on the decision and its consequences.

The changes were decided at a meeting of the full Council on 14 October, following approval of a detailed motion signed by all nine Staines ward councillors. For the full text of the motion click here. In summary, the effect of the decision is to broaden and strengthen significantly the investigation’s terms of reference and remove the Chief Executive from his administrative role in its conduct.

In proposing the motion, Cllr Sinead Mooney (Staines South) stressed the need for the investigation to be credible not least to local residents. For this to be achieved, she said comprehensive and robust terms of reference would be essential and therefore those already published needed to be considerably strengthened. She said it was also essential that the Chief Executive had no role in the investigation, again to reinforce the integrity of the exercise.

Seconding the motion, Cllr Veena Siva (Staines) said it “beggars belief” that the Arora scheme, two-and-a-half times higher and several times the mass of any other building in its vicinity in the historic Staines Conservation Area, would be considered by the Council let alone become the subject of a legal agreement for its construction. She also said it represented a “massive conflict of interest” for the Chief Executive to have any role in the investigation other than to give evidence to it.

Many other Councillors spoke in support of the motion before a recorded vote on it. There were two abstentions: Cllrs Ian Harvey (Sunbury East, and Council Leader when the Arora contract was signed) and Olivia Rybinski (Ashford Town). There were no votes against.

Terms of Reference

The changes to the terms of reference are critical to the purpose and scope of the investigation, and therefore its credibility. The original published terms of reference were essentially focused on whether Council policies and practices had been adhered to. The revised terms of reference will ensure the investigation deals with a broad range of other aspects including the reasons behind key decisions, the roles and relationships of individuals, and the views of other bidders. For the items now added to the terms of reference click here. These will help address the widespread concern that the Arora scheme was the product of a corrosive cocktail of secrecy, over-reach, extraordinary power in very few hands, and the absence of both proper scrutiny and local democratic accountability.

Administrative arrangements

Conduct of the investigation requires a number of administrative and related tasks to be delegated to a Council officer. Staines ward Councillors and our coalition of residents’ organisations objected vigorously to this role being assigned to the Chief Executive because of his central role in the development of and contract for the Arora scheme. We believed it was highly inappropriate for him or any other officer involved in the project to have any role in the investigation other than to give evidence to it, and regret it took a formal motion to the Council to get this changed. The role of liaising with the investigator and ensuring she has full access to relevant Council documentation and personnel has now been assigned to a borough solicitor who was not involved in the project.

The investigator

A successful and credible investigation depends on the experience and independence of the investigator (as well as the terms of reference that define the scope of the investigation, see above). Although the investigator has been conducting inquiries into the Waterfront Development Project for several weeks now, her identity was not released until last week. The Council’s announcement says Yinka Owa “has more than 22 years’ experience of working in Local Government Legal and Governance roles including being a Director of Law and Governance and Monitoring Officer of a London Borough. She has extensive experience in contract, procurement and governance matters including regeneration and development projects. This made her a suitable independent professional to undertake this inquiry. The Review Group were assured by her CV that Yinka has the expertise, experience and independence to ensure that this is a ‘no stone left unturned’ inquiry”.

Role of Staines Ward Councillors

An organisation like the Riverside Residents (Staines) Coalition has no power to do much beyond shining a light on issues of concern to the community and making noise. The power to make things happen is in the hands of elected Councillors, often working with the Council’s leadership, through various committees, and with Council officers.

The important additions to the terms of reference and changes to the administrative arrangements for the Arora investigation would not have been achieved without the close cross-party collaboration of all nine Staines ward Councillors over the past several weeks, and the willingness of the Council’s leadership to listen. When meeting with our coalition of residents’ organisations on the Arora investigation and wider concerns about high-rise developments in Staines, they have all left their party affiliations at the door. This has been the foundation of our relationship and key to achievements to date.

The nine ward Councillors are:

Staines: Cllrs Malcolm Beecher, Tom Lagden, and Veena Siva.
Staines South: Cllrs Chris Bateson, Sinead Mooney, and Jenny Vinson
Riverside and Laleham: Cllr Michele Gibson, Tony Harman, and
Denise Saliagopolous.