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Council leader called chief executive to voice 'concern' over Westfield's involvement in Conservative MP's rally


COUNCIL leader Tony Newman called the council's chief executive to express his "concern" that a senior figure from Westfield was about to speak at a Conservative political rally. 

John Burton, Westfield's director of development, was one of the speakers at the launch of Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell's reelection campaign at Fairfield Halls on Monday. 

Though he told the near 400-strong crowd his involvement was not "political" it has led some to question the retail giant's impartiality. 

Westfield and co-developers Hammerson are behind the £1 billion planned redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre, involving a new shopping complex, hundreds of homes and the creation of up to 5,000 jobs.

The redevelopment has cross-party support and is seen by many as the key to reviving Croydon's fortunes.

Labour leader Cllr Newman only discovered Mr Burton was to appear at the Tory rally late on Monday afternoon. 

He told the Advertiser he rang chief executive Nathan Elvery to voice his "surprise" at Mr Burton's decision and "concern" that Mr Barwell was using the scheme as a "political football". 

Mr Barwell said he had made the nature of the event "crystal clear" and had the right to promote one of his "biggest achievements".

The list of speakers - which included a head teacher, a knife crime campaigner and the co-founder of Croydon Tech City - was a closely guarded secret ahead of Monday's meeting. 

The Advertiser revealed the line-up several hours before the rally and, when Cllr Newman realised Westfield would be involved, he called Mr Elvery.

He said: "I had a conversation with the chief executive. I wanted his understanding [of what was happening]. My own view was that I was surprised [Mr Burton] was doing it. When I heard it was a political rally, I had concerns. 

"My concern was that Gavin was turning Westfield into a political issue when it's remorselessly not been the case."

Cllr Newman said he did not ask Mr Elvery to try to stop Mr Burton from taking part.

"I am sure [Mr Elvery] would have had a conversation with John about how much he did and did not know about the event. At this point we're talking less than half an hour before the thing started," he explained.

"I was concerned that Westfield could become a party political issue when it's crucial that's not the case. The scheme is bigger than any individual."

When Mr Burton did eventually take the stage he told the invite-only audience he would not be making a "political speech" but was there as an "apostle of Croydon and one of the true believers". 

He did, however, mention the role Mr Barwell and Mayor of London Boris Johnson played in brokering the deal between Westfield and Hammerson, known as the Croydon Partnership. 

In a statement provided to the Advertiser following the meeting, a Westfield spokeswoman said: "Westfield, along with other key Croydon business, education and community stakeholders, was invited to provide an update on the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and attended the meeting in a non-political capacity only. 

"The redevelopment has received cross-party support and it's vital the Croydon Partnership continues to work with all political parties to ensure that this important retail regeneration program is brought forward at the earliest opportunity for the benefit of Croydon."

Cllr Newman has since spoken directly with Mr Burton and says he received a commitment that he would attend similar rallies held by Mr Barwell's opponent Sarah Jones and Croydon North MP Steve Reed, if they choose to do so. 

"I'm completely reassured by his response," said Cllr Newman. 

"The responsibility for John being dragged into this lies with Gavin Barwell. Presumably [Mr Burton] did not know what the stage was going to be like when he agreed to speak. 

"I'm disappointed Gavin tried to deliberately blur a community rally and a campaign launch. 

"I don't think there's any further reason to be concerned as long as Gavin doesn't print 250,000 leaflets with pictures of John Burton and claiming, in any way, that he endorses his campaign.

"It would lead to the growing feeling that Gavin's campaign is all around spin and instant headlines." 

Mr Barwell said he had invited Mr Burton to speak at the event through an intermediary and later met with him to explain the format and the possible fallout from his involvement.

He said: "It was blindingly obvious that when the list of speakers was made public Labour wouldn't be happy.

"So I made a point of going to see John and I explained to him what the event was and what I thought the possible reaction would be. I went out of my way to make it crystal clear because I didn't want to place someone who was doing me a favour in an awkward position.

"I don't accept that I made it into a political issue. What I tried to do is talk about what I have done as an MP. 

"If Tony is suggesting that I am not allowed to talk about my involvement in what is one of the most important things going on the town, and one of the biggest pieces of work I have done since being elected, that's ridiculous and he should grow up."

Earlier this year the council approved the use of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to acquire the sites necessary to begin construction work.

Negotiations are ongoing, parallel with a legal challenge by one of the interested parties, ahead of a public inquiry. 

Council leader called chief executive to voice 'concern' over Westfield's involvement in Conservative MP's rally

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