Cllr. Clare Coghill and Square Roots Registered Provider Ltd.: the controversy continues

Reaction to Cllr. Coghill’s appointment to the Board of Square Roots Registered Provider Ltd. continues to provoke discussion, and, in some quarters, condemnation.

One issue is whether her change of circumstance will impact on how LBWF does business with developers.

Normally, there is a good deal of arm-wrestling in such negotiations, with the two sides haggling over, for example, the balance between social and private housing, the amount of green space and ancillary facilities to be included, and so on.

Cllr. Coghill, needless to say, has intimate knowledge of LBWF’s current plans and bargaining strategy.

Questioned about whether LBWF has any legal control over what Cllr. Coghill can or can’t divulge to her new employer, or indeed anyone else, LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom responds as follows:

‘Cllr Coghill is not an employee of the Council but a directly elected politician and as such there is no contract of employment between Cllr Coghill and the Council. As you may be aware on taking office all councillors sign a declaration to abide by the Councils Code of Conduct for Members and this includes the duty not to disclose any confidential information that she receives whilst a councillor.

If after leaving office Cllr Coghill sought to disclose confidential information that she received whilst a councillor then the council would consider what legal action it may wish to take depending on the circumstances, which could include injunctive relief and damages’.

However, this is less reassuring than he probably intends.

No doubt, Cllr. Coghill will continue to follow the Code until she stops being an elected representative in May next year, but it is what happens subsequently that causes unease.

Most obviously, when Cllr. Coghill steps down, she will become just another private citizen, so LBWF will have no legitimate way of tracking who she talks to, or what she tells them.

In addition, defining ‘confidential’ in this context is far from clear cut. 

True, Cllr. Coghill will have seen a large body of written material marked restricted. But what of her opinions, say, about the strengths and weaknesses of senior Town Hall staff, gained over years of personal interaction and observation? Such knowledge almost certainly will be important as Square Roots (plus parent, London Square Ltd., and related subsidiaries) further develop their projects in Waltham Forest, but is outside of any legal strictures. And a moment’s thought throws up many similar examples. 

In other words, though Mr. Esom may talk tough, and seek to shut the stable door, the horse has probably already bolted.

So much for practical matters.

But comment on Cllr. Coghill’s move into the private sector has also focused attention on her reputation and legacy.

The general tone is one of disappointment, a sense that Cllr. Coghill has let the side down, perhaps betrayed the values that both she and her supporters once seemed to share.

In telling the story of her life, Cllr. Coghill habitually harps on her humble background, and the discrimination she has faced as a woman.

Thus, in one biographical sketch, she recounts being ‘educated in comprehensive schools held together with sellotape and the unfailing goodwill of teachers and parents’, while in another she claims that when she first joined the Labour Party, ‘I was greeted…by blokes who didn’t see the point of a young woman coming along and expressing < gasps > an opinion’.

Unsurprisingly, having experienced such adversities, Cllr. Coghill then goes on to stress how they have shaped her political career. She likes to paint herself as different to her male peers, a leader who has yoked feminism to her socialism, and thus, in historic terms, become a role model for all women who are interested in mainstream politics.

Needless to say, in the past this has played well with some left-leaning segments of the electorate, yet whether it stands up to scrutiny is another matter.

For one thing, Cllr. Coghill’s post-secondary school career progression seems less a tale of struggle against the odds, more akin to a ride on an up escalator, headed for the top.

Consider her progression. Degree from University of York; post-graduate degree from University of Montpellier; placement with the influential Barry Sheerman, MP, later his office manager; Group Co-ordinator with the Parliamentary Sustainable Waste Group; employment at two prominent private sector consultancies; elected councillor in May 2010; Junior Cabinet Member for Health also in 2010, Cabinet Member for Children and Young People in 2012, and Cabinet Member for Economic Growth and Town Centres in 2014; finally, Leader in 2017.

Of course, besides talent, there has been a lot of hard work involved in this ascent, plus some calculation, and good fortune. But it is also true that Cllr. Coghill has benefited from being picked out early on by the Labour machine, and then assiduously assisted.

In context, therefore, her jump into the lucrative end of the private sector seems no more than a logical next step. Cllr. Coghill has amassed a wealth of knowledge and contacts, and is now thought of as a ‘housing expert’. Little wonder she wants to monetarise such advantages.

As to Cllr. Coghill’s brand of socialism and feminism, that too invites questions. It is clear that she holds her principles dear, and, for example, has rarely passed up an opportunity to underline that she is on the side of ‘everywoman’. 

But whether Councillor Coghill has delivered on her rhetoric is disputable.

Two sets of statistics, previously reported on this blog, are particularly illuminating.

In 2019, LBWF estimated that men in the Town Hall earnt on average 13.5 per cent more than women, a gender pay gap that was roughly twice the then average for all local authorities.

And in 2021, LBWF revealed that to bring its housing estate (including sheltered housing blocks and high-rise towers) up to an acceptable safety standard meant completing an extraordinary 14,525 separate corrective ‘actions’, 72 per cent ‘high’ or ‘medium’ priority, at a cost of c. £40m..

Thus, the current disappointment with Cllr. Coghill for ‘selling out’ is perhaps a bit naïve, and says more about her erstwhile supporters’ fantasies than the alleged shortcomings of their ex-heroine.

How, then, should Cllr. Coghill’s time as Leader be evaluated?

In 2020, ‘communications and engagement experts’ ECF profiled Cllr. Coghill in advance of a ‘Webinar briefing’, and concluded by observing, ‘Waltham Forest is generally considered to be one of the most pragmatic and pro-investment in London’.

That surely serves as a suitable epitaph, albeit perhaps an unexpected one for a politician who wears her ‘woman of the people’ heart so prominently on her sleeve.

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