Cabinet member robustly denies allegations of holding ‘Sheffield back’ and breaking code of conduct rules
One of Sheffield City Council’s most senior cabinet members has been accused of ‘a repeated succession of inappropriate behaviour’ which broke codes of conduct and ‘held the regeneration of Sheffield City Centre back’.
A formal complaint was submitted to the council about the behaviour of Councillor Mazher Iqbal in October 2020, when he was Cabinet Member for Business and Investment.
Following this month’s elections, he was handed the new cabinet role of City Futures, Development, Culture, Regeneration. The six month internal investigation is ongoing.
The complaint was made by Simon Ogden, former head of city regeneration, who worked for the local authority for 36 years.
In it he has accused Coun Iqbal of ‘openly associating with and supporting the interests of certain private commercial parties’; organising meetings with developers without planning officers present, which is explicitly prohibited; and wasting thousands of pounds of taxpayer money by commissioning planning consultations only to cancel them at the last minute.
Coun Iqbal denies all the accusations. A Labour party spokesperson said: “This is an historic complaint that Coun Iqbal will defend robustly.
“Unfortunately, due to the confidentiality around the process we are unable to comment further.”
Sheffield City Council has acknowledged that there is an ongoing investigation into the conduct of Coun Iqbal but declined to comment further.
Since The Star first broke news of the complaint, we have spoken to sources with senior positions in Sheffield Labour group, as well as senior council officers who were directly impacted by the actions highlighted.
They have confirmed the accuracy of the allegations but wish to remain anonymous.
The council’s legal team issued Mr Ogden with a letter requesting he did not disclose his evidence behind the complaint – a request he rejected as effectively a ‘non-disclosure agreement’. After waiting six months and still with no timescale for a conclusion of the investigation, Mr Ogden said that he felt it necessary to make his complaint public.
The Star has seen extensive email chains between Coun Iqbal, council officers and private firms regarding developments in Sheffield city centre between 2017 and 2020 – and the complaint procedure that followed.
Mr Ogden said in his complaint: “I am saddened to say that over my whole career I cannot recall such a repeated succession of inappropriate behaviour as that demonstrated by Coun Iqbal which I now feel compelled to call out.
“Coun Iqbal has broken the codes of conduct, either overtly or implicitly acting in favour of some developers and should have stepped away from these matters whilst the investigation was carried out.
“[The national code of conduct] issued by the Local Government Association explicitly says: ‘Do not:
‘- use your position improperly for personal gain or to advantage your friends or close associates,
‘- meet developers alone or put yourself in a position where you appear to favour a person, company or group – even a ‘friendly’ private discussion with a developer could cause others to mistrust your impartiality,
‘- seek to influence officers or put pressure on them to support a particular course of action in relation to a planning application,
‘- compromise the impartiality of people who work for your authority.’
“And there have been a series of events where he did just that.”
One example of alleged breaches of the code highlighted in the complaint involves the councillor meeting with developers alone to discuss proposals for the redevelopment and conservation of the Castlegate area in Sheffield between 2018 and 2020.
In his complaint, Mr Ogden said: “In this instance there is an apparent ulterior motivation in the form of an email record of discussions between Coun Iqbal and developers, dated August 26, 2020.
“[This sets] out their own proposal for the site to be handed over to them, without any competition or procurement and putting them and their consultants in sole control of the planning and design of the site.
“A council loan of £500,000 is also proposed. No officers were present at the meeting.”
In an email seen by The Star, a representative of the potential developer recites the proposals to Coun Iqbal and other senior council officials that the development of the old market and castle site will be carried out by a company they suggest will be established, comprising representatives of both the business and Sheffield City Council.
The email, dated September 8 2020 and begins ‘further to our discussion on 26 Aug’.
In the same email the potential developer writes: “SCC will loan to [the company they are proposing] the sum of [£500,000] to enable the design team (contracted by [the company they are proposing]) to deliver the masterplan and outline planning application.”
In these instances the developer is not accused of any wrongdoing, as developers are not bound by the same codes of conduct as those elected to public office in the council.
In response to the proposals, the senior council officials and others copied into the email to Coun Iqbal expressed concern that they had not been consulted.
On September 9, one writes: “I don’t know what discussions Mazher has had but we cannot do this legally / under our constitution. It will need a competitive process (and we should want a competitive process).”
Another writes: “It is clear to me that [the developer’s representatives] are seeking to position themselves so as to take “control” of all this [...] I am very alive to this.
“I was very struck by [their] comments when we discussed this, he said: ‘we have been handed a tentative mandate to move to the next stages of the planning’. I had assumed the mandate had emanated from SCC but it looks like it may now have been a mandate only from Mazher?
“What I don’t know however is, what has Mazher said to them? As I read [the developer’s representative’s] email, he references discussions with Mazher on 26 August and his email is presented as a summary of what was discussed with Mazher.”
When asked, the author of the emails proposing the establishment of the company to develop Castlegate denied that Coun Iqbal had interacted with them in any way they perceived to be in breach of codes of conduct.
In his complaint, Mr Ogden also highlights two other occasions when Coun Iqbal “became very personally involved in a number of planning applications on city centre sites over which he challenged the guidance, particularly on building height limits in Conservation Areas.”
He said: “Pressure on planning and conservation officers was applied by Coun Iqbal in a number of instances, notably development proposals at Sylvester Street and Bailey Street.
“In each case it was openly indicated by Coun Iqbal that he had met with the respective developers without officers present and had made up his mind to force officers to change advice and policy.”
In an email about the Sylvester Street development sent to planning officers and senior council officials on November 28, 2017, Coun Iqbal wrote: “We want to see more density/height and this needs to happen! I have also spoken to the two ‘Chairs’ of the Planning Board and they agree with our position. We are being ignored, we have been clear with our instructions, what more do we need to do to implement this policy?”
And in another shown to The Star, regarding the Bailey Street block on November 9, 2017, Coun Iqbal wrote: “We want to see more than the 6/7 storeys across the City. Your team needs to implement this change of policy.”
Mr Ogden adds that while officers generally resisted this pressure, several subsequently left the council. He added that the design team – including conservation, landscape and disabled access experts – was then dismembered as part of a ‘restructure’.
Other key planning posts have been filled with temporary agency staff as experienced officers left. There have been five chief planning officers in the last six years with the post recently advertised again.
Also highlighted in the complaint are circumstances where Coun Iqbal is accused of wasting tens of thousands of pounds of public money in delaying and cancelling consultations he had previously agreed to.
The first of these allegedly took place in 2017 and relates to the City Centre Plan, and its design guidance on tall buildings particularly in heritage locations, which he wanted officers to drop.
Mr Ogden alleges that Coun Iqbal commissioned £20,000 worth of work over 18 months for the plan, only to delay publication of the information on two occasions and then publish it with almost no publicity and subsequently shelve it.
Emails to planning officers, shown to The Star, show Coun Iqbal’s requests for delay and repeated requests from officers for an explanation.
And in relation to the redevelopment and conservation of the Castlegate area in Sheffield between 2018 and 2020, emails between planning officials and Coun Iqbal show repeated decisions to delay previously-commissioned public engagement over the regeneration of the historic quarter.
Mr Ogden said that Coun Iqbal first agreed to this consultation and then scrapped it, with no indication of when it would be resumed. It included a £10,000 consultation on declaration of a conservation area for Castlegate, cancelled after more than 50 letters were sent out and an exhibition advertised. Coun Iqbal also gave explicit instructions to officers not to issue a public statement or press release regarding the cancellation.
In a letter to the chair of Sheffield Joined Up Heritage in March 2019 Coun Iqbal stated: “I need to be very frank with you that I receive extremely vociferous challenge to some of the Council’s approaches to conservation from the development industry, many of whom will paint the diametrically opposite view to yours i.e. that the Council is far too concerned with protecting Sheffield’s heritage and that it is a barrier to development.”
On another occasion, in September 2020, some £120,000 was spent on an archaeological dig on the Castle site which attracted 15,000 public comments and £20,000 went into preparing public consultation on the future of the site as part of a ‘Castlegate Festival’, due September 2020. This was again postponed at the last minute by Coun Iqbal without specific reasons given. Again, instructions not to issue public statements explaining the postponement were given by Coun Iqbal.
Both of these Castlegate consultations remain on hold.
Two senior members of Sheffield’s Labour group, who have served alongside Coun Iqbal and asked to remain anonymous, have backed Mr Ogden’s complaint. They have spoken to The Star and corroborated claims of inappropriate behaviour with developers.
One said: “Mazher Iqbal was told in no uncertain terms that pushing developers through planning is not what he should be doing. He clearly knew circumventing the planning processes was wrong.
“I would never meet with a developer by myself, for their protection as much as mine. I would never dream of it. It is just a recipe for disaster. That is drummed into you pretty hard: just do not expose yourself to that. And we have seen evidence that has happened.”
The other added: “I think that all councillors, however senior, need to be seen as respecting the hard work and dedication that the majority of council officers have. If they do not treat them with respect, then we will not get the best for the people of Sheffield.
“At this time, where we may be rightly criticising the Government for its misuse of power and influence, any council needs to be absolutely open and honest in how it deals with any private developers.”
Gillian Duckworth, monitoring officer at Sheffield Council, said: “We cannot provide details of a specific complaint, however any complaint received is treated seriously.
“Where there are complex issues, there may be more than one process to be considered. These inevitably take time to resolve. It is commonplace for investigations to remain confidential so as to not prejudice the outcome.”