A Damning Alibi

The latest British sleaze scandal hints at a far bigger, untold story

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th March 2001

Nick Raynsford’s alibi is unchallengeable. The minister was not trying to cover up his decision to allow a unique listed building in Oxford to be moved, to make way for a business school funded by the arms broker Wafic Said. He had failed to inform the local MP simply because he was away in Egypt, leading a trade mission.

It’s still not clear why the government refused to examine an application to dismantle one of the country’s most important industrial monuments, or why the Prime Minister’s office felt compelled to intervene in such a trivial matter as the timing of a planning decision. But the most interesting question has yet to be asked: what was the British planning minister doing on a trade delegation to Egypt? The answer suggests that Mr Raynsford’s alibi is rather more heinous than the alleged crime.

Mr Raynsford was leading a delegation of 27 corporations. Among them were some of the most controversial multinationals stationed in this country: Balfour Beatty, Enron, Laing, Mott MacDonald, Thames Water and WS Atkins. The projects they visited included Egypt’s most contested development scheme: the $90bn “Toshka” programme to divert the Nile. Environmentalists warn that it will devastate the river’s ecology, financial consultants warn that it will have a similar impact on the country’s economy. It’s the sort of scheme, in other words, which, were it to have been proposed in Britain, should have been subject to the fiercest scrutiny by planning officials at the Department of Environment, overseen by Mr Raynsford.

Interestingly, the major beneficiary of the trade mission appears to have been not a British company, but a Norwegian one. Soon after the tour, Kvaerner revealed that it had landed a £266m contract to build a pumping system at Toshka. Kvaerner’s otherwise inexplicable presence on a British trade tour might have had something to do with the fact that it had seconded more of its employees into the Department of Environment than any other company.

So why was Mr Raynsford, rather than a minister from the Department of Trade and Industry, helping these companies to sell their wares in Egypt? Well, Nick Raynsford has a curious double role. He is minister for planning, which means he is the regulator of development in Britain. But he is also minister for construction, which means he is the promoter of development in Britain. He routinely resolves this conflict of interest in favour of the industry he’s supposed be regulating.

Nick Raynsford has gone to some lengths to show construction companies whose side he is on. “I see my job”, he told Building magazine, as “creating a climate in which the industry can do well”. To this end, his division has sought repeatedly to undermine government policy. It has sponsored, for example, a public relations offensive for the quarrying industry called “Minerals 98”. One of its purposes was to help companies lobby against the tax on roadstone which another division of the environment department had proposed.

At Labour’s 1998 local government conference, Mr Raynsford argued against the environment department’s plans for a tax on out-of-town parking places and in support of the superstores’ objections to them. He has promised the British Council of Shopping Centres that he will seek to speed up major new retail schemes. Last week, he undermined the government’s commitments on climate change by watering down the rules on energy efficiency in new homes, arguing that the standards were “an undue burden on builders”.

But perhaps most alarming is his alleged role in the debate about the Ilisu Dam in Turkey: the devastating ethnic cleansing project which will drive 78,000 Kurds out of their cultural heartland. It was Mr Raynsford, according to Whitehall sources, who persuaded Tony Blair to back the project. Why should he have done so? Well, in September 1999, he led a trade mission to Turkey. The consortium he accompanied was seeking to land £4bn-worth of contracts for rebuilding after the earthquake. The consortium was fronted by Balfour Beatty, which also happens to be the firm hoping to build the Ilisu dam. Three months later, the British government announced that it was “minded to grant” export credit for the Ilisu scheme. Is it possible that Raynsford was told by the Turkish government that British rebuilding contracts were conditional on support for the dam?

The real scandal surrounding the Oxford business school is that everything Mr Raynsford says about it is probably true. There were no peculiar measures taken to approve the development; there was nothing unusual about the government’s decision not to review the case. Decisions to turn a blind eye to the destruction of our heritage and environment are taken on behalf of the construction industry every week, by the man who is supposed to be policing it.