A town hall leader bidding to become an MP has accepted close to £10,000 worth of free Premier League tickets from a Los Angeles movie company after his council approved plans for its new film studios.
Darren Rodwell, the Labour leader of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, has been entertained 19 times by MBS Group in a luxury corporate box at West Ham’s stadium in the wake of deals paving the way for MBS and its parent company, Hackman Capital Partners, to create 12 sound stages on former industrial sites.
Rodwell has been a prominent advocate of the Eastbrook Studios project, describing it as the “reel deal”. It has involved the borough selling key plots of land to the studio operators and changing planning restrictions.
Since September last year he has regularly attended West Ham matches, sometimes twice a week, as a guest of MBS, with each visit valued at £526. Rodwell, a committed West Ham supporter who has his own season tickets, has seen games against Manchester City, Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester United, Brighton, Newcastle United, Burnley, Watford, Leeds and Southampton as well as Genk, Viborg, Dinamo Zagreb, Eintract Frankfurt and Steaua Bucharest.
Hackman Capital Partners owns studios globally where productions such as The Sopranos, ET and The Late Late Show with James Corden have been shot.
The arrangement – which Rodwell described as “co-hosting” – has sparked concern that it may lead to the “perception, if not the reality, of undue influence” and “reputational risk” to him and the council of accepting gifts from those who stand to benefit from their decisions.
The council’s code of conduct states: “Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.”
Rodwell strongly denies any conflict of interest or that he has breached the code. He declared the corporate hospitality, said he was using the box in part for community benefit by inviting people with learning disabilities and looked-after children, and added: “It will help business in the borough, which is what I am there to promote as leader of the council.”
MBS said it bought the box to entertain film and TV customers and business and community leaders as part of its effort to bring content production businesses to the east London area.
For several years Rodwell has supported plans to build film studios on the site of a former pharmaceutical works that was acquired by the council.
In October 2020, after “strong interest from several private sector organisations”, the borough agreed a 250-year lease of the site with HCP. It also agreed to rent a separate wharf site to the studios, and its planning committee agreed a change of use.
In November 2020, the council announced it had signed an agreement with HCP to “make London’s Hollywood”. The project team is led by MBS.
Rose Zussman, a policy manager at Transparency International UK, an anti-corruption charity, said: “Decision-makers accepting significant amounts of gifts and hospitality can lead to the perception, if not the reality, of undue influence. There is a reputational risk for the individuals themselves as well as the council when accepting gifts from those who stand to benefit from their decisions, and this can have a long-term detrimental impact on public confidence.”
Rodwell strongly denied any suggestion he had pushed through the deals in expectation that he would be treated by the studio companies. “All the major deals were done before they got the box and planning is different to what I can do, I am the executive.”
He said the sale of the site “was a business decision. It was a site that we bought on the understanding that we would later sell [it] on, and the public purse got a profit from [it].”
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Ian Sherborn, MBS Equipment’s director of marketing, said it bought the box more than a year after it was selected to buy the studios site from the council.
“We are fortunate that [Rodwell] has, on occasion, been happy to co-host our box, to meet our guests and help us pitch the benefits of the Barking and Dagenham community as a place to work and live,” he said. “He is also constantly introducing us to many different businesses and local leaders, again, all in an effort to create relationships which will improve job growth, civic involvement and education.”
A spokesperson for the council said the sale was agreed unanimously by the cabinet and overseen by a law firm “to ensure due process” and Rodwell did not sit on the planning committee.
“It’s their box, it’s not my box,” said Rodwell, who stressed he would have been at the matches anyway. “They want to show there’s a good relationship with the local authority, but at the same time my main aim is to have improvements for my community. When they have the spaces, I am able to [invite] community groups and others.”
He denied his use of the box left any impression that the studios could be paying him back for overseeing helpful deals. “No,” he said. “People could perceive it that way, but if there was anything underhand I wouldn’t declare it. I do declare it.”
He also denied he was getting a benefit from inviting people to the box and said that when he used it he would give away his own season tickets. “If I was bringing corporate partners, I would agree with you, but I am not,” he said. “I am bringing the community.”
A spokesperson for Barking and Dagenham council said: “Councillor Rodwell makes no personal gain from the box. When using the box, which he openly declares, he offers his season tickets to local residents on a first come, first served basis via his social media pages. Recently, this included a mother and son who had fled domestic violence.”