‘A mockery’: Emails reveal how planning authority helped MSG Sphere developer
- Credit: MSG
Senior figures at the planning authority in charge of the Olympic Park helped a would-be developer with PR campaigns, a cache of emails reveal.
London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the independent planning authority for the Olympic Park, is due to make a decision next year on the proposed multi-million MSG Sphere development in Stratford.
If approved the application would see a LED-covered entertainment venue built in Stratford, including a 21,500-capacity auditorium.
But campaigners have obtained correspondence between the applicant and the supposedly neutral planning body going back to late 2017, during which LLDC:
- Discusses strategies on how MSG is going to deal with "local resistance" once the application is submitted;
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- Gathers information for MSG and its PR consultants to inform publicity drives in Newham;
- Places MSG on the Stratford Overview Board, alongside TfL and Network Rail, to discuss improvements to Stratford Station.
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The Labour parliamentary candidate for West Ham, Lyn Brown, has also written to the Mayor of London asking for LLDC's planning powers to be returned to London councils as soon as possible for not delivering enough affordable homes.
She wrote: "I have been told that unelected members of the LLDC board and planning committee frequently outvote elected borough representatives and this has often resulted in development that fails to benefit local people".
In response, LLDC said it was "not unusual" to hold regular meetings on proposals of this scale, or to use the applicant's own material in community consultations.
A spokeswoman added: "Our independent planning decisions committee will determine the application in line with national, London-wide and local planning policy."
How LLDC helped MSG
The Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) bought a parcel of land off Angel Lane in late 2017 for £60million, plus £12m VAT.
In March this year it submitted two applications to LLDC: one 3,000-page set of proposals for the Sphere itself and one for the "skin" of programmable LEDs to cover it, which could display illuminated advertising and would be on 24/7.
In the first round of public consultation around 800 responses were received. Some 60 per cent of these were objections, with both Newham Council and LLDC asking for more information from the applicant. The process is now on hold.
According to LLDC's own records, between November 2017 and April 2019 there were 79 meetings between LLDC and people acting for MSG.
Of these 33 were conducted with no minutes taken, including for regular private phone calls between CEO Lyn Garner and MSG's project lead in London, Jayne McGivern.
Meetings between LLDC chairman Peter Hendy and the MSG team in America also went un-minuted, as did discussions on the "planning programme", and meetings with MSG's PR consultants, London Communications.
In March 2018, MSG hosted an "exclusive preview" event at LLDC's own Copper Box Arena attended by at least 10 officers from the planning authority.
It was not logged in any of the officers' registers of gifts and hospitality, and LLDC did not comment on whether it should have been.
Over the summer MSG was added to the Stratford Overview Board, which brings together key stakeholders discuss improvements to the Stratford Station area. It was later restructured to focus on public sector organisations and as of May 2019 MSG no longer sits on the board.
In June Paul Brickell, LLDC's executive director of regeneration, emailed another PR firm for MSG, the Blakeney Group, to say: "It was really good to see you and I look forward to what we'll invent together!".
Mr Brickell provided the PR firm with a contact at East London Dance, who has since appeared in MSG's promotional videos.
In autumn 2018, officers at LLDC contacted local schools on behalf of MSG to arrange stop-offs on its "Schools Tour Bus" campaign and compiled a list of 38 Newham primary schools for MSG to target for "outreach" work.
The wording of promotional material sent to schools was also forwarded to LLDC for pre-approval.
Throughout 2019 campaigners raised concerns about how far the application was being treated as a "done deal".
They have also cried foul over emails to LLDC, which were released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lindesay Mace of the Stop MSG Sphere group said: "LLDC are supposed to be neutral but if feels like a series of deals may be happening with every intention of pushing through planning permission, making a mockery of the entire process.
"All of this is doubly concerning when there is no democratic oversight of the LLDC. We will continue asking questions and demanding answers."
Before joining MSG as its executive vice-president of development and construction, Jayne McGivern was a former LLDC board member from 2012 to 2016.
She was paid up to £14,000 a year to sit on the board as well as the investment committee.
Though this took place before the MSG's bid, campaigners have said it suggested a "clash of interests".
In March 2019, the emails show, Ms McGivern asked LLDC officers agree a date for "verification day" - the day LLDC verified the application - in order to co-ordinate a press announcement.
She also previously asked Lyn Garner and Peter Hendy from the LLDC to "have a conversation" with TfL boss Mike Brown, adding: "This is becoming quite a big issue from my colleagues. I simply don't understand why he won't even take a call." Lyn Garner duly did so.
On February 15, just before MSG submitted its application, Lyn Garner sent a private email to Jayne McGivern and a colleague.
It said: "A meeting once the application is lodged would be good. I feel that there remains local resistance and it would be good to explore your strategy."
In a statement this week MSG president Andy Lustgarten acknowledged that plans to open the Sphere in London by 2022 were "no longer realistic".
The company reported an adjusted operating loss of $41.1 million for October-December 2019, compared to $9.9m in Q1 2019.
The increased losses were partly attributed to "additional expenses in MSG Sphere related content and technology".
When MSG's application is decided in 2020, the planning committee will include three Legacy Corporation Board members, five councillors from Newham, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets Councils, and four "independents" appointed by LLDC.
An LLDC spokeswoman said: "As with any large application there are regular meetings between LLDC and the applicant, for example for detailed technical discussions, both before and after submission.
"We have received over 800 consultation responses from the public which are currently being considered.
"We have not yet received the additional environmental information we requested from the applicant. Once this is received we will be undertaking consultation."
MSG declined to comment.