England’s University regulator is facing questions over a potential ‘conflict of interest’ after appointing Lord Wharton as chair for the Office for Students (OfS), it has been revealed.
As well as being appointed the chair of the OfS, Lord Wharton is also a paid adviser for the firm Aquind.
Aquind wants to build a cable network linking the UK and French electricity grids, but the £1.2billion project would be built through the University of Portsmouth.
The University said it is opposed to the route but not the project itself.
It is concerned about disruption to sporting facilities as the cables would run through its land, which it claims would leave it with financial losses.
Lord Wharton is also a paid adviser for the firm Aquind which wants to build a cable network linking the UK and French electricity grids
Both Labour and Conservative MPs in the city area are also opposed to potential digging through densely populated areas
But Aquind has rejected the claims and said the impact would be ‘minimal’.
A University of Portsmouth spokesperson said: ‘The University has made a representation under the planning process on this matter but is not objecting to the principle of the proposed development as we recognise the national energy objectives.
‘The objections relate to the impact on the operation of the site and future development potential.
‘The current plans will cause disruption to the provision of facilities to students and the local community, which together will impact the University’s business.
‘The proposed route will also adversely affect potential development opportunities for the site.
‘Lord Wharton’s appointment does not change the basis of our objection and we have full confidence in him acting in his new position.
‘We hope that any perceived conflict of interest on this matter will be able to be appropriately and transparently managed by all those involved.’
Both Labour and Conservative MPs in the city area are also opposed to potential digging through densely populated areas.
Several Portsmouth MPs have raised concerns about a conflict of interest.
Labour MP for Portsmouth South, Stephen Morgan, told the BBC: ‘We know Aquind has links to Tory donors.
‘But to be advising a firm responsible for this project while it is being challenged by a university Wharton is set to regulate, raises serious red flags about his impartiality, particularly if he keeps the Conservative whip.
‘These revelations cast fresh doubt over Lord Wharton’s suitability for this key role.’
But the OfS says protections are in place to prevent any conflicts of interest.
An OfS spokesperson said: ‘The interests of all OfS board members are published on our website.
‘Where there is a conflict of interest, or a reasonable perception of a conflict, board members must comply with the OfS rules in this area.
‘These are published on our website. Where there is a conflict related to an individual higher education provider we would expect the relevant board member to exclude themselves from any decisions directly related to that provider.
‘Lord Wharton becomes chair of the OfS in April 2021, and a declaration of his interests will be published on our website when he takes up the post.
The University of Portsmouth has raised concerns about disruption to its facilities if the cables are built underground
‘As a peer, Lord Wharton’s interests are already publicly declared on the Parliamentary website.’
An Aquind spokesman said Lord Wharton had no part determining the location of the underground cables or in the ongoing engagement with Portsmouth Univerisity.
Lord Wharton said in a statement: ‘The OfS has robust rules to deal with any conflicts of interests for the chair and board.
‘All of my interests will be publicly declared on the OfS website.
‘I will of course play no part in any decisions where I have a conflict of interest or where there may be perceptions of one.’
The Department for Education also defended the appointment and rejected accusations of cronyism made by Labour.