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Local authorities are unable to prevent corruption in planning, says report

Words: Laura Edgar
Corruption / iStock-1226398998

England’s planning system is open to corruption through lobbying and local authorities lack the necessary safeguards to prevent it, according to research by Transparency International UK.

The independent anti-corruption organisation says that some individuals and companies seek to corrupt major planning decisions through gifts and hospitality, lobbying key members in “secretive” behind-closed-door meetings and hiring serving councillors with inside knowledge to secure planning consent. 

Examples in Permission Accomplished: Assessing Corruption Risks in Local Government Planning include:

  • A £200 million-plus development in Liverpool under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), with no minutes taken at meetings between the developers, councillors and their officials.
  • A planning chair at Westminster council was forced to resign over excessive gifts and hospitality worth over £13,000.
  • A developer giving a series of political donations to the local branches of a political party around the same time in which they were applying for planning permission within the same local area.

It also found there to be 32 councillors across 24 councils holding critical decision-making positions in their local planning system while also working for developers.

The report states that too many local authorities have weak rules to stop such bribery and lobbying from happening. “Even fewer councils have control measures for major conflicts of
interest, with far too many decision-makers also working for developers on the side. Moreover, when councillors behave badly, there are no clear or meaningful sanctions available to councils that could act as an effective deterrent against serious misconduct by them or others in the future.”

Transparency International UK assessed 50 English councils with responsibility for planning as part of its research. They were scored on how they managed corruption risks under a scale of 0 to 100 (poor to meets good practice).

According to the report, the councils averaged at 38 out of 100, with 84 per cent scoring less than 50. More than half of the 50 councils scored under 40.

Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said: “Given the controversy often surrounding major developments, the evidence we have gathered makes for worrying reading. 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.

“Fortunately, most of these issues can be easily addressed by local authorities without the need for a change in the law. While our recommendations are not a silver bullet, for many councils they would represent a major improvement on the measures currently in place.”

The report includes recommendations that Transparency International UK said would be relatively inexpensive and easy for local authorities to implement to improve transparency and strengthen oversight of the planning process. These include:

  • To help provide greater confidence in interactions with those seeking planning consent, councils should ensure all meetings between councillors, developers and their agents in major planning decisions are attended by at least one council official; recorded in detailed notes; and published online with the planning application file.
  • To help prevent the perception of undue influence over planning decisions, councillors should be prohibited from accepting any gifts and hospitality that could give rise to real or substantive personal gain or reasonable suspicion of favour or advantage being sought.
  • To help to provide confidence that councillors are working in the public interest, members should be prohibited from lobbying councils on behalf of paying clients and providing paid advice on how to influence councils.
  • To help to reduce the risk of councillors abusing their movement between public and private office, local authorities should:

- Provide advice, guidance and training to those involved in making decisions on planning applications about the risks involved.

- Prohibit those who have recently worked as lobbyists for developers, or for developers seeking planning permission (for example within the prior two years), from sitting on planning committees or receiving executive responsibilities relating to planning.

  • To inform councillors about the boundaries of acceptable conduct in the planning process, all local authorities should introduce compulsory training for those on planning committees or with executive functions relating to planning, including specific modules on ensuring integrity in the process and the factors they should take into account when making a decision.

More details about the recommendations and the report can be found on the Transparency International UK website.

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