Recommendations from an independent think tank, if they were applied in Croydon, could force cabinet member Paul Scott to stand down from all planning responsibilities. KEN LEE reports
Planning decisions are open to corruption from secretive lobbying, council officials’ conflicts of interest and even bold-as-brass bribery, according to research by Transparency International UK.
In the report, published yesterday and entitled Permission Accomplished, they say that councils across England lack essential safeguards to prevent corruption in planning decisions. The report looks into the shady role of lobbyists, the “revolving door” between public officials and developers, and the problems caused by conflicts of personal and public interests.
The report’s findings will appear familiar with the many residents in Kenley who have been battling for more than a year to get Croydon Council to provide evidence that one of its senior planning officials, Ross Gentry, ever properly declared that he is married to a director of Macar, a development company which has been granted permissions for multi-million-pound flat-building schemes in their neighbourhood.
The report found 72 serving councillors from 50 different local authorities who are also on the pay-rolls of lobbyists working in the development industry.
The report names Cratus Communications and Thorncliffe, companies which have both been involved on behalf of major schemes in Croydon and in Lambeth in recent times.
Lobbyists don’t even bother trying to disguise their influence over local authorities. On the contrary, they often boast about it.
For example, on its website, Cratus claims that the company “provides advocacy for those who seek to engage and work with the local public sector and the communities they serve… Our team is made up of people who have led and run major public services, the unifying factor being a belief in the importance of local decision-taking and accountability.” Or the lack of it, some might suggest.
Cratus’s staff have at various times included Simon Hoar, now a Conservative councillor for Purley Oaks and Riddlesdown. And while there is no suggestion that be acted improperly (and if there was, we’d do our best to expose it), the same can’t be said of Tory Clare Hilley, who also worked for a spell at Cratus.
The former councillor for Waddon got herself in hot water when she emailed from her Croydon Council account offering her knowledge of the planning system to potential employers. Hilley was quietly removed as a member of the planning committee after Inside Croydon exposed her little game.
The apparent contempt that some who straddle lobbying and public service is demonstrated in this quote from one, included in the report.
David Archer, a Conservative councillor and planning consultant based in Surrey, is quoted describing how sitting on a council’s planning committee was an advantage: “I know who the tree huggers are, I know who the thick idiots are, I know most things. I can write the minutes for a meeting before I go in…”.
The Transparency International report states, “This investigation showed how a councillor’s knowledge of the planning process could be used to influence other members of a planning committee in favour of a developer, even if they were prohibited from attending the planning meeting themselves.”
Permission Accomplished further reveals how individuals and companies seek to corrupt major planning decisions through generous gifts and hospitality, lobbying key members in secretive closed-door meetings, and hiring serving councillors with inside knowledge to help secure development consents.
They say that “these risks are compounded by weak safeguards against major conflicts of interest, such as councillors working for developers on the side, combined with a lack of meaningful sanctions to deter misconduct”.
Transparency International makes 10 recommendations that it said would be relatively inexpensive, easy for local authorities to implement and would improve transparency and strengthen oversight of the planning process.
- Minute and publish all meetings with developers and their agents for major developments
- Prohibit those involved in making planning decisions from accepting gifts and hospitality that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process
- Prohibit all councillors from undertaking lobbying or advisory work relating to their duties on behalf of paying clients.
“Given the controversy often surrounding major developments, the evidence we have gathered makes for worrying reading,” said Duncan Hames, the director of policy at Transparency International.
“Poor practice can give residents the overriding impression that decisions are being taken to benefit powerful and wealthy interests at the expense of delivering much-needed, truly affordable homes.
“Failing to recognise these concerns threatens to further erode trust in the planning system and undermine billions of pounds of investment. Many will be disturbed to hear that there are those entrusted to decide on major planning applications who also work part-time for developers as their clients.
“Allowing such a clear conflict of interest for those holding senior roles does nothing to address concerns that the planning system is open to abuse.
“Councillors working for developers in their private time should not be allowed to influence or determine any major planning applications.”
This particular recommendation, if strictly implemented, could even make it impossible for Paul Scott to serve on the planning committee or continue as the council cabinet member for planning. In his private career, Scott is a director of architects TP Bennett, a firm which has often benefited from commissions from developers working in and around Croydon.
“While our recommendations are not a silver bullet, for many councils they would represent a major improvement on the measures currently in place,” Hames said.
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