If you want the place where Ken Livingstone’s political career ended, an office building down a side street in Kennington is probably it. Offley Works, owned by Ken’s London Development Agency, was Lee Jasper Central, the headquarters of the main crony organisations run by friends of the Mayor’s race adviser who got rent-free accommodation and further millions from the taxpayer while doing nothing visible in return. Viewers of the BBC and ITV London news got used to seeing pictures of the money-pit as the latest revelations came in.
The main cronies are gone now, and have been busy helping police with their enquiries. But before the scandal blew up, they granted illegal sub-leases to what you might call sub-cronies – among them Code 7, Starlight Music Academy and others – who continue to this day to enjoy rent-free space, free utilities, free business rates and free security at Offley Works, courtesy of the London taxpayer.
Starlight and the others mounted a shrill PR campaign on Jasper’s and the cronies’ behalf during the scandal. After the election, they kept turning up at the Mayor’s public events. They enlisted some of London’s more trusting bloggers and politicians to the view that they were an irreplaceable cornerstone of Brixton youth culture whose eviction would devastate the community arts scene. The LDA had already regularised their lease before Ken lost; last year, under Boris Johnson, it gave them a one-year extension. Just like the original cronies, their explicit agenda is to parlay a temporary and irregular occupation into permanent use and control of this hugely valuable building.
Sadly, however, when I looked into Starlight, I found it wasn’t registered at Companies House or the Charity Commission and had never, in its claimed 12-year existence, published any accounts. It failed to answer repeated phone calls and emails. Other organisations doing arts outreach work in the area (and struggling for pennies from City Hall, let alone free buildings) had never even heard of it. It kept no records of who had studied there and what they had studied. Its website showed no courses – but it did list a certain Lee Jasper as a “friend of Starlight” and thanked him for getting them its accommodation. Jasper, I discovered, lobbied for them to keep the building at a meeting last March. So far, so familiar.
Starlight has now registered as a company (still no accounts, though) and claims to run three courses a week with a Mobo-award winning artist. But its website is still completely blank on the events front. Lee Jasper has been removed, but so too have all contact details, mobile and email. I can’t help feeling that almost anybody would be a better recipient of a free building than this lot.
Now, at last, it looks like the party may be over. At November’s public question time with the Mayor (scroll down to the bottom of page 15 of the PDF) the Starlight crowd overdid the heckling and got thrown out. This week, it was announced that the Offley Works tenants’ lease would expire in May, that they were being given advice on “relocation” and that the LDA would this month sign a agreement for the building to be redeveloped for small business, residential and community use – things, in other words, that London actually needs.
I predict the Starlight people will keep clinging on as long as they can, hoping to wear the LDA down. But they really do seem to have been rumbled this time: even their former protector, the Labour assembly member Val Shawcross, says that theirs is “not good lobbying.” As Boris’s youth ambassador, James Cleverly, says: “The simple fact is there are fantastic projects all over London that do not shout as loud as others and they should not be denied funding.”
At the time of writing, at least, it’s looking like Offley Works will no longer outlast the bendy bus and the Venezuelan oil deal as a monument to Ken’s rule. When they do redevelop it, though, I hope they put a plaque up.