Croydon starts to gag councillors over planning bids

Another one of Croydon Council’s more ludicrous internal memos reaches us here at Inside Croydon. This one, from the council’s official solicitor, seeks to forbid councillors from talking to local residents on planning matters. Some times. They’re just not entirely clear when.

Taberner House, Julie Belvir's present ivory tower

As well as being palpably ridiculous, this memo provides further evidence of how opaque Croydon Council goes out of its way to try to reduce accountability at every opportunity in its dealings with the ordinary people of Croydon, even among elected representatives. Apparently all in the cause of avoiding even the merest perception of bias.

Significantly, the ruling in the memo does not forbid councillors, the council’s highly paid executives or officers from going out to dinner with representatives from multi-million pound developers.

Nor will it stop them from traipsing off to the south of France for a week-long jolly on the rates, where developers were being encouraged by Croydon chief exec Jon Rouse in Jerry Maguire-like, “Show Me The Money!”-style language, to “get a piece of the action now, at the beginning of the cycle, and realise real dividends down the line as Croydon takes off”.

Early in March, Julie Belvir, Croydon’s “director of democratic” ha! “and legal services” distributed a guidance note suggesting a forthcoming amendment to the council’s Planning Code of Good Practice, because concerns had been expressed about the perception of bias among members of the all-important planning committee.

Croydon CEO Jon Rouse: just back from a week in the south of France, where he was pimping Croydon to any developers who will listen to his Show Me The Money spiel. No planning bias there at all

As Belvir noted at the time: “it is not only actual bias that may render a decision unlawful but the appearance of bias itself may undermine due process in decision making”.

Belvir’s initial note continued: “Although the Council’s Planning Code of Good Practice doesn’t specifically refer to avoiding contact with Members of the Public immediately upon the conclusion of a meeting, the next revision of the Code is going to make clear that the same principle applies at that stage.

“This is because if an interested party observes private interaction between Councillors and members of the public (whether objectors or applicants and supporters) immediately upon the conclusion of a planning determination, it might be reasonable for the interested party to consider that this is the continuation of some earlier private discussion or that there is some undeclared affiliation or agreement between the member of the public and the Councillor concerned.

“Although such concerns are very likely to be unfounded in reality, it would be safer and best for Councillors to avoid any risk in this area. This not only protects the Councillor concerned from any unfounded allegations but also protects the Committee’s decision making process. The proposed revision to Paragraph 9.2 is therefore likely to read:

“’In making a decision on a planning application a committee member must:

Not allow members of the public or other non-committee councillors to communicate with them during the committee’s proceedings (orally or in writing) as this may give the appearance of bias. For the same reason, it is best to avoid such contact before the meeting starts or immediately upon the conclusion of a meeting’.”

Such an ill-defined piece of guidance had the councillors banging on Belvir’s door, asking for clarification on how long a period before or after the meeting this self-imposed purdah might last.

So on March 26, Belvir was forced to issue yet another email to councillors from both Conservative and Labour groups to try to clarify the position:

“Pursuant to the attached note which was sent on the 5th of March to all Members and Reserve Members of the Planning Committee, a query has arisen about the point at which it is considered permissible for Members of the Committee to speak to members of public following a Committee Meeting.

“For instance, if it is not appropriate to speak to members of the public in the Council Chamber on the close of Committee, would it be permissible to speak to them on the ground floor of the Town Hall?

“On behalf of the Council’s Monitoring Officer, this email is intended to provide further guidance to Committee Members.

“The stage at which it becomes appropriate for a Member of the Committee to interact with Members of the Public on the conclusion of a Committee Meeting is a matter of appearance and degree. It is arguable that there is very little difference in an aggrieved objector or an aggrieved applicant seeing a Member of the Committee discuss a planning matter with an applicant or objector (respectively) after a Planning Committee whether it is at the doors of the Town Hall or in the chamber where the meeting took place.

“The safest course of action would be to avoid such contact by, for instance, the Member asking the member of the public to contact them by email setting out any concerns that they may have and the Member can then consider these or pass them on to Planning Officers as appropriate. Provided the Member was able to assert that this is how they dealt with the matter, they will have a strong defence against any allegations of bias or allegations of having allowed themselves to be subjected to inappropriate lobbying.

“Unfortunately, it is not feasible to create an exhaustive list of the ‘do’s and don’ts’ in this area. Much will depend on the circumstances and the nature of the conversation between the public and the Member concerned. Ultimately, as Members you will need to exercise your own discretion and judgement in this area whilst bearing in mind that the appearance of any bias can be potentially as damaging as an actual bias.

“After the day of the Committee, it is open to Members to be in discussion with the public concerning Planning Matters provided always that they act in accordance with the usual rules concerning lobbying set out in the Council’s Constitution and attached for ease of reference.”

All very good… up to a point.

But Belvir makes no mention of perceptions of bias because a councillor’s political party might receive millions in donations from a firm of developers, or donations to the local party from the owner of a chain of restaurants which might, or might never, want some help in the planning process.

Nor does Belvir mention any potential perceived bias if a councillor on the planning committee happens to work full-time, say, for a PR company that offers expertise “in the ‘politics of planning’”, for a company which might also boast that it “can offer the most effective strategic and tactical advice to secure land and planning permissions. As an integral part of your development team to providing political counsel, communicating with residents and key stakeholders and engaging with decision makers”. So much better, surely, if one of the PR firm’s employees is one of the planning decision makers?

And no perception of bias in the planning process whatsoever. Oh no.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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