… the product of a ‘patently dysfunctional’ Council …

THE FINAL CHAPTER of Spelthorne Borough Council’s highly controversial Waterfront Development Project has yet to be written. But to date it has been a long and sometimes grubby tale with its origins in a corrosive cocktail of secrecy, over-reach, extraordinary power in very few hands, and the absence of both proper scrutiny and local democratic accountability. Key decisions on this tragic overdevelopment of the Staines riverfront and Conservation Area at the Staines Bridge gateway to the town with a massive hotel and more than 200 apartments were taken when the Council’s administration was “fractured and patently dysfunctional” (according to an independent investigation).

It was this that led to far-reaching changes in how Spelthorne Borough Council conducts its affairs. It was the Arora scheme itself that led directly to our six residents’ organisations coming together as a coalition to fight it, and now with a purpose beyond that.

On 1 August 2022 the Council met to decide whether to seize the ‘golden opportunity’ to let the contract with the Arora hotel group (signed in April 2020) lapse, or agree to the developer’s proposed revisions to the scheme. It chose to sweep aside major concerns and unanswered questions to endorse the new proposal despite, in the words of one Councillor, it “driving a coach and horses” through the zoning proposals in the Council’s own draft Local Plan to limit the height of new developments in the Conservation Area. One Councillor explained that the decision had to be taken for financial reasons and to protect the Council’s reputation with developers!


Birth of a scandal … how it all began

The Bridge Street Car Park / Hanover House site in the sensitive riverfront Conservation Area by Staines bridge has had a troubled and controversial planning history over several years. Many schemes had been proposed, rejected or abandoned. The most recent instalment was an announcement at the beginning of May (2020) by the Council’s then Leader and the Arora hotel group: a Development Agreement for a 14-storey 342 room hotel with conference and banqueting facilities, a spa, restaurants, bars, leisure and retail facilities … and more than 200 apartments. (The scheme was recently revised to a smaller hotel but more apartments, see ‘The new Arora scheme’ below).

The development the Council signed up to in 2020 would have been almost three times higher and several times the mass of any other building anywhere near it. It would be massively bigger than the development envisaged for the site in the Council’s “Spelthorne Local Plan – Preferred Options Consultation” document of November 2019: “Number of net homes approx over the plan period: 75 residential units”. This document was published at the same time as the Council was in private discussion with potential developers for a large hotel, a process that produced the Arora agreement. 

The Arora scheme (as originally proposed and as recently revised) would dominate and wreck the appearance, amenity and public realm of the Staines Conservation Area and the Egham Hythe Conservation Area on the other side of the river. It would conceal many of the town’s heritage assets close to it. It would steal natural light from properties in its immediate vicinity during the day and swamp the area with artificial light at night. It would further choke the already crippled road infrastructure at and around the bridge.

The scheme appeared to be subject only to the formality of planning approval. In making the announcement the then Leader of the Council said he thought “residents will be pleasantly surprised by the clever design features and range of facilities being proposed.” This one pronouncement was the clearest evidence of how little he knew of the local community, how little he had listened to its residents, and how little he appeared to care about their views and interests.

Maybe this was not so much about Staines needing a 14-storey hotel complex, maybe it was more about money.

The Council’s secret cabal

The announcement was not just a shock for the local community. It transpired that most of Spelthorne’s elected Councillors, including Ward Councillors for Staines, knew little or nothing about the scheme or the contract with Arora before it was announced.

Our research over several subsequent months involved exchanges with many of the Council’s 39 elected Councillors, Freedom of Information requests to the Council, and sight of confidential documents. This revealed, for us, the scandal of its provenance. From information passed to us and from our FoI enquiries, the scheme and the contract with Arora had been negotiated in great secrecy by Council Officers working with just four members of the Council’s Cabinet: the then Leader, his wife, and two others appointed by the then Leader. The decision to proceed with signing the contract was rushed through an emergency cabinet meeting, even though several protested (at the meeting and in writing) they needed to know more … and notwithstanding the fact that the Council could have amended or abandoned the contract at any time and at no cost prior to signature. Despite this and the scheme’s many controversial features (its size and location in the Conservation Area, non-compliance with the Council’s extant Local Plan and other policies/guidelines, a 250-year lease on the site, significant financial and other implications), it was not referred to or called in for review by the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee. (Indeed, it was not until late November 2020 that the new Leader of the Council, elected in June, was given access to it).

Outrage and action with political and practical consequences

Outrage within the Council, including among the ruling Conservative majority, soon turned to action. This was for many ‘the last straw’ following considerable disquiet over a long string of property investments with more than £1billion borrowed from a government fund and the refusal of auditors to sign off the Council’s accounts. The then Leader and several of his cabinet were replaced. They created a new political grouping and in doing so the Conservative Group lost its majority … after nearly half a century of unbroken absolute control.

A new Leader, Deputy Leader, Mayor and Deputy Mayor were elected by the Council and announced in June (2020). The new administration made a number of pledges, including:

  • A review of how the Council is run, to ensure “there is a greater opportunity for residents and Councillors to have a voice”.
  • A shift in the “tone” of the Council to make it “more focussed on the needs of our residents and communities”.
  • A review of the former Leader’s “Local Plan and ominously named Staines Masterplan”.

Stuttering start for the investigation

Continuing disquiet in the community and among Councillors, particularly those representing the three Wards in Staines, finally led to the announcement in April 2021 of an independent investigation into the provenance and contract for the Arora scheme. Robust and wide-ranging terms of reference were published. These, however, did not survive a change of administration a month later. The new Leader confirmed that the investigation would happen. But the terms of reference subsequently published were much narrower and weaker, confined mainly to whether any law or Council regulation had been broken. There was considerable speculation about who had had their hands on the pen that wrote them. Those in the community and Council chamber who had called for the investigation in the first place also wanted to know if the exercise of the Council’s former ‘strong leader’ model of governance had been exploited or even abused. Some five months later, persistent pressure from the community and cross-party Councillor power led to a significant broadening and strengthening of the terms of reference to include these aspects.

The independent investigation and its findings

The 32-page report by the independent investigator, a lawyer sourced through the Local Government Association, was published in July 2022. It is available from the Council and we encourage others to read it. It sets out in forensic detail the chequered planning history of the site, the wide-ranging authority delegated to Council Officers, the functioning of the Council under the ‘strong leader/cabinet’ model of governance, and how the decision to approve the contract was rushed through. An email from the Leader late on Sunday 5 April 2020 invited the majority Conservative group to a virtual meeting the following day to endorse the contract for formal cabinet approval two days later. This was the first that most, including some members of cabinet, had been given any information on it. There was no financial information and, despite this, the meeting on the Monday endorsed the scheme for cabinet approval on the 8th. The Cabinet (all from the same political group and appointed by the Leader) approved it unanimously. The decision was not referred to or called in by the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee. The first any Councillors other than those in the majority political group knew about it was the Council’s press release on 4 May.

The investigator’s report makes a number of observations. These include the discord and mistrust within the majority political group which “made working together a challenge” and the relationship “eventually became irreconcilable” … “some of the councillors interviewed said the situation was so bad that they will not be standing at the next election.” The report also sets out a dozen major concerns expressed by Councillors about the Arora scheme and the process that led to the decision, including “that senior officers, who should have kept the Leader in check, were working in cahoots with him”.

Importantly for those involved, the investigator found no evidence of a failure to meet legal and Council procedure requirements. But the report observes: “Decisions were made within a fractured and patently dysfunctional environment”.

The investigator’s report is dated 25 July 2022. At a meeting of the Council just one week later, Councillors were given a choice: seize the ‘golden opportunity’ to let the contract (signed in April 2020) lapse that night, or agree to revisions to the scheme proposed by Arora. Several Councillors complained about being rushed into the decision. 400 pages of new documents relating to the evening’s agenda (100 of which for the new arrangements with Arora) had been sent to Councillors just a few days earlier. However, as noted in the introduction above, Councillors chose to sweep aside major concerns and unanswered questions to endorse the new proposal despite, in the words of one Councillor, it “driving a coach and horses” through the zoning proposals in the Council’s own draft Local Plan to limit the height of new developments in the Conservation Area and other sensitive sites. One Councillor explained that the decision had to be taken for financial reasons and to protect the Council’s reputation with developers!

The Arora scheme was the first test of the proposed zoning arrangements, and the Council itself breaking it sets a precedent that predatory commercial developers for other sensitive sites in the town will simply seek to exploit.

The new Arora scheme

Little is yet in the public domain, but the proposed new Arora scheme is for a smaller hotel (205 rooms) but more flats than in the original proposal. The revised scheme will still be massively out of scale with anything else in or near the Conservation Area. We have been assured that Arora plans to hold a public consultation on its plans prior to the scheme being put to the Council’s Planning Committee for a decision.

Nigel Rowe – Riverside Residents (Staines) Coalition – August 2022