Crony row hits building design watchdog

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The Independent Online

The Government's building design watchdog should not be headed by a property developer with significant commercial interests, an official report into complaints of cronyism concluded yesterday.

The Government's building design watchdog should not be headed by a property developer with significant commercial interests, an official report into complaints of cronyism concluded yesterday.

The investigation into the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) concluded that the organisation must do more to persuade the public of its impartiality. Complaints about the improper influence of the property developer Sir Stuart Lipton, who has chaired the organisation since it was founded five years ago, triggered the investigation.

Sir Stuart stood down this week in advance of the publication of the findings, which would have inevitably led to demands for his resignation.

The inquiry, carried out for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport by the chartered accountants AHL, concluded that Sir Stuart's position no longer conformed to the Nolan report's standards on figures in public life.

Since he was appointed chairman of Cabe in 1999, Sir Stuart has become the chairman of Stanhope plc, a company which has moved from project management to property development.

"The cumulative effect of the chair's interest is becoming, in our view, too great and may be perceived as being contrary to Nolan principles," the report said. "It is our view that it is not in the public interest for this post to be held by a person with significant commercial interests that may come into conflict with Cabe's remit."

The report was commissioned by Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the Heritage minister, after concerns were raised that Cabe had written favourable design reviews of Stanhope projects. Although such reviews are not binding, they can influence planners so the benefits of a positive review to a property developer created a "substantial" risk of a possible conflict of interest, the report said.

The first complaint was made by residents in South Kensington, London, who objected to a proposed 11-storey office building on top of South Kensington Tube station to replace a two-storey block. Despite 800 letters of objection, Cabe gave the project a positive review, although Stanhope later withdrew the plans.

Other schemes which provoked controversy included Paternoster Square in London and Croydon town centre.

A statement from Cabe yesterday welcomed the findings. It stressed that the commission had found "no evidence of improper influence" and that Sir Stuart's experience and track record as a developer had contributed enormously to the its success in proving a powerful advocate for good design.

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