The property industry entertained leading Scottish politicians with champagne and veal in a secret £5,000 VIP dinner at a four-star hotel in the south of France, The Ferret has learned.

The Scottish Government’s finance secretary, Derek Mackay, attended the exclusive event in the luxury resort of Cannes on 12 March 2019. He was joined by the City of Edinburgh Council’s SNP leader, Adam McVey; Glasgow City Council’s SNP leader, Susan Aitken; Aberdeen City Council’s Conservative co-leader, Douglas Lumsden; and Dundee City Council’s SNP leader, John Alexander.

The bill from the “unaffected and confidential” Hotel Le Gray d’Albion shows that the 25-strong group were charged £2,110.50 for drinks, including Fouquet’s Brut Champagne. The menu was chilled pea soup, followed by grilled veal sirloin then vanilla and strawberry cake.

Officials from the Scottish Government, University of Edinburgh and Glasgow University also enjoyed the dinner and drinks, alongside leading property developers. After eating, the event ended with a free bar for two hours.

The bill came to £208 per head after tax, amounting to £5,200 in total. The meal was sponsored by Glasgow-based architects firm and “bronze sponsor” Austin-Smith:Lord.

The Cannes dinner was part of a £260,000 “Team Scotland” programme for delegates to the MIPIM property investment conference, where taxpayer funded officials enjoyed four days of largely undeclared corporate hospitality. The annual conference is branded as “the world’s leading property market” for “the most influential players from all sectors of the international property industry”.

The meal did not appear on the programme published by government organisers who coordinated the public-private Team Scotland partnership activity at the conference. Instead, invites to the meal were handed out by senior officials from the government’s Scottish Enterprise.

The Ferret has found no evidence of anyone at the meal recording their attendance in the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register. Nor does the event feature in the public register of interests of any politician involved, leading critics to call for more “sunlight to be shed on these relationships urgently.”

However, representatives from a number of private firms at the dinner have insisted that no regulated lobbying activity took place, and therefore they had no need to put anything on record.

Private companies represented at the meal were gold sponsors of the wider Team Scotland delegation to the MIPIM conference, or described as “senior financial investors” in ministerial briefing notes.

According to the notes, civil servants suggested that Mackay should encourage investors to inquire about major projects in Scotland in his opening remarks at the dinner.

One of the “top lines” they gave the minister was: “I know a number of you have interests and curiosity in specific projects and I’m keen to support those conversations over the evening and make sure you have what you need to do business in Scotland.”

The gold sponsors

Scottish public bodies spent at least £165,569 on the 2019 event. Private sector companies contributed £94,893.62 to the Team Scotland MIPIM presence.

Correspondence prior to the event shows that gold corporate sponsors of the Team Scotland delegation were invited to the private dinner, and they were encouraged to bring a guest.

A Scottish Enterprise email said: “Guests are to be an investor you are currently in discussion with or wish to strengthen your relationship with. The aim of the dinner is to promote Scotland for capital investment and being hosted by the Cabinet Secretary would help this partnership with your guest.”

David Murray Junior, the son of one of Scotland’s richest men Sir David Murray, was among those invited to dine alongside government officials.

His Murray Capital Group has significant property interests across Scotland and was a gold sponsor of the Scottish MIPIM delegation through his property arm, Murray Estates.

Scottish ministers are currently considering whether to give planning permission to the first phase of a huge “garden district” development by Murray Estates on former greenbelt land near Edinburgh Airport.

Jestyn Davies, managing director of the property development arm of Murray Capital Group, Murray Estates said: “We were there promoting our business to the rest of the world. That is all.” He was also at the Cannes dinner.

A further Team Scotland gold sponsor at Cannes was the Robertson Group. The chief operating officer (COO) of the firm, Elliot Robertson, attended the dinner.

The Robertson Group is an investor in the government’s Scottish Futures Trust Hub Programme, and benefits from Scottish private finance schemes that channel taxpayers’ funds into building and maintaining new schools and hospitals. It is currently working with the University of Edinburgh, who also had a member of staff at the Cannes dinner.

The firm also laid on a “Scottish public sector dinner” the following evening at a Cannes restaurant with its own private beach, alongside another firm with extensive Scottish property interests, Henry Boot.

A spokesperson from Robertson Group said: “Our COO attended a dinner hosted by Scottish Enterprise and one of the guests was the finance secretary. At no point did our COO engage in conversation relating to key aspects of government policy.”

Another investor represented at the meal was M&G Real Estate. The firm has pumped millions of pounds into Scottish property deals in recent years, and is currently awaiting the verdict of City of Edinburgh Council planners on proposals for the Haymarket Yards site in the centre of the capital. M&G reportedly bought the site for £49 million in 2018.

The firm has not responded to our request for comment to date.

Miller Mathieson, who chairs the the Scottish Property Federation (SPF), the lobby group representing property developers in Scotland was also invited to the Cannes dinner. A spokesperson for the group insisted they did consider registering attendance at the meal with the lobbying register but concluded it was not necessary.

The spokesperson said: “The dinner was among a number of events the Scottish Property Federation, among others, was invited to attend by Scottish Ministers over the course of MIPIM in support of Team Scotland.”

The SPF did subsequently post details onto the lobbying register, but after taking advice from the Scottish Parliament officials who maintain it, decided to withdraw their entry.

SPF added: “We have welcomed the register and the verification process it includes. The issue of when to make a return further to meetings with Scottish Ministers is not always clear, but such meetings are, of course, recorded by the Scottish civil service and declared in accordance with its rules.”

Only one property firm has added an entry to the lobbying register that relates to the MIPIM conference. British Land said that they spoke to Derek Mackay to raise “awareness of the perspective of the landlord in the current retail environment, particularly in the context of retailer company voluntary arrangements discussions, and the closure of stores in shopping centres like British Land’s centres in Edinburgh and Glasgow – Fort Kinnaird and Glasgow Fort.”

British Land were not named on the Team Scotland MIPIM corporate sponsor list and were not invited to the Team Scotland meal.

Team Scotland MIPIM meal seating plan

Seating plan for Team Scotland meal

Too close

Campaign groups and opposition politicians shown the materials unearthed by The Ferret say that they the illustrate why more needs to be done bring transparency to the relationships between Scottish politicians, civil servants and property developers.

Tamasin Cave, of transparency campaign group Spinwatch said: “The property lobbying industry urgently needs examination. It is one of the most under-scrutinised areas of lobbying which means that the relationships between property developers and politicians have become too close.

“You see all the problems of Westminster lobbying, like revolving doors, secret corporate hospitality and blurred responsibilities.”

She added: “All this leads to projects that favour the interests of wealthy property developers and landowners and not the needs of the communities that councils and governments are supposed to serve.

“This means we don’t get the affordable housing that we need or the community assets that we need – we get the assets that serve the interests of the property developers instead. We need to tackle this problem urgently and shed sunlight on these relationships.”

None of the council leaders from Dundee, Glasgow, Aberdeen or Edinburgh have added their attendance to MIPIM events to their published register of interests. To date none of these councillors have been able to confirm the value of the corporate hospitality received at MIPIM.

Similarly, the Scottish Government are yet to publish any details of Mackay’s attendance at other private lobbying events at MIPIM or the value of the hospitality received.

The planning process should be transparent and open, not the product of cosy secret dinners in Cannes. Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Alex Cole-Hamilton, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for West Edinburgh, whose constituency includes areas of land that Murray Estates hopes to develop said: “Many people would question whether it is appropriate for the finance secretary, accompanied by the SNP leaders of Glasgow and Edinburgh councils, to have been sipping hundreds of pounds worth of champagne at an invite-only event with developers currently petitioning their administrations for planning approval.

“The planning process should be transparent and open, not the product of cosy secret dinners in Cannes.

“Derek Mackay should urgently clarify why this lobbying meeting wasn’t on the public agenda of his trip. He and Adam McVey should also confirm whether it will be logged on their register of interests.”

Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “Members of the public will rightly be wondering why SNP Finance Secretary Derek MacKay thought it appropriate to attend a luxury VIP dinner in France, alongside property developers with commercial interests in Scotland, without declaring a registered interest.

“Transparency is key here – and if Derek MacKay has nothing to hide, there should be no issue with the content of these meetings being made a matter of public record.”

The Scottish Government insisted that public sector representation at MIPIM had “directly” contributed to billions of pounds worth of investment in Scottish cities. “Ministerial dinners as part of ministerial events and engagements are routine and a normal part of ministerial duties,” said a government spokesperson.

“MIPIM is a commercial property sector focused event, and it is therefore to be expected that this is the primary audience for engagements in the context of the conference.”

The spokesperson added: “Over the last decade, attendance at MIPIM, as well as similar events, has directly contributed to £2 billion of investment in Scotland’s cities, helping to support jobs and businesses.

“We encourage capital investment both in commercial property and in social and community facilities, including housing, and are committed to increasing our spend and investment.”

Other Scottish taxpayer funded bodies to send members of staff to MIPIM include Clyde Gateway, Scottish Futures Trust, Strathclyde University, East Renfrewshire Council and Scottish Cities Alliance.

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said: “The council makes absolutely no secret of the fact Glasgow attends the MIPIM event and why – which is to attract investment to the city. This year, Glasgow attended as part of a larger Scottish delegation.

He added that council leader, councillor Susan Aitken, would update her register of interests with details of the MIPIM hospitality she received.

“This was an oversight which was immediately rectified when brought to our attention. The leader of the council is more than happy to share details of her engagements at MIPIM,” the spokesman said.

The architects firms Austin-Smith:Lord, which sponsored the meal, confirmed it was part of the Scottish delegation at MIPIM. “We attended as one of numerous sponsors of Scotland’s delegation,” said partner, Graham Ross.

“As part of our bronze sponsorship we accepted the opportunity to attend an investors dinner at MIPIM, alongside many other guests.”

Following publication of this story, Edinburgh council leader Adam McVey, issued a statement: “I attended a range of programmed events as part of Team Scotland at MIPIM 2019 including this ministerial dinner representing the city. The Team Scotland programmed events I took part in were sponsored by the council as well as other partners but I’ll of course register any components necessary.

“MIPIM is Europe’s top development and investment conference with a global audience of more than 20,000 investors and developers. The £1bn Edinburgh St James development being built right now came about following conversations with the developer that started at MIPIM. We’ve pledged to build 20,000 affordable homes and deliver economic opportunity so everyone can share in Edinburgh’s success. If we are to achieve this, building these relationships and creating these opportunities is crucial.”

The MIPIM 2019 files

The Ferret has submitted freedom of information requests to most of the public bodies that sent staff to MIPIM 2019. As documents are received they will be added to this searchable archive.

This story was updated at 08:29am on 22 May 2019 to include a comment from Scottish Labour, and again at 10:50am on the same day to include a statement from the City of Edinburgh Council.

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