Exploring corruption risks in local government planning decisions

Teddy Marks, Transparency International UK

Anyone who’s lived near or been involved in a major planning application knows they are a magnet for controversy and tension. This is exactly why the decision to grant or reject permission is given to local representatives – to ensure there is some form of accountability. Yet recent examples have shown how planning decisions can go wrong. Even without the existence of wrongdoing, the perceptions of impropriety can undermine millions, if not billions, of pounds of investment in new homes.

A new report from Transparency International UK, Permission Accomplished, sought to find out why these scandals have happened and how lessons can be learnt. To do this we began by reviewing 13 major cases where alleged or proven impropriety by councillors had affected planning decisions across England. From this, we identified three key areas of risk and how local authorities could mitigate them. Most of the proposals are based on existing recommendations from the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Committee on Standards and Public Life (CSPL).

To see how local authorities were applying these in practice, we looked at the policies and procedures of 50 councils (representing 15 per cent of English planning authorities) and scored them against our recommended good practice standards. To make sure we were being fair and consistent, we developed a scoring matrix from 100 (meets good practice) to 0 (poor), and invited councils to comment on their draft findings and methodology. We also subjected the results to robust internal review and a standardisation process to ensure we assessed all councils equally.

Worryingly, not one council scored higher than 55, and the average score was 38 out of 100. Clearly, local authorities have a lot of room for improvement.

So what are the main corruption risks facing councillors in planning decisions, and how have well have councils addressed them? I’ve provided some highlights below.

 

Councillors’ engaging external stakeholders

Putting forward one’s view is not in and of itself a bad thing, and is an important part of the planning process. But lobbying behind closed doors and providing excessive gifts and hospitality to decision makers are real red flags. At best, this can present the view of councillors in hock with wealthy developers. At worst, they can suggest complicity in criminal conduct.

Both Transparency International UK and the LGA propose local authorities require all meetings between councillors and developers (and their representatives) for major developments to be minuted and available for public inspection. Yet just 44 per cent of councils in our sample required this, and only 12 per cent explicitly stated that they be published. We also both recommend there should be an official present in these meetings, but only 30 per cent do this.

As for gifts and hospitality, councillors must be prohibited from accepting any that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process. Only 26 per cent in our sample had any such ban.

 

Managing conflicts of interest

Conflicts of interest occur where a holder of public office is confronted with choosing between the duties and demands of their position, and their private interests. Councillors are elected to serve the public, but some companies employ existing and former councillors to help them get planning consent. When councillors are employed to do so whilst still in public office, it can create a direct tension between their civic duties and private interests.

In a brief search, we found 72 existing councillors across 50 local authorities who are, or used to be, employed by companies working in the housing and/or planning industry whilst they were holding public office. Currently, 32 of these councillors across 24 councils hold critical decision-making positions; for example, as members of a planning committee.

Although some councils stopped councillors from acting as agents, not one had explicitly prohibited them from lobbying on behalf of paying clients or providing paid advice on how to influence councils.

 

Regulating councillors’ conduct

Weak oversight, especially when combined with poor codes of conduct and decisions with lots of money at stake, almost encourages misconduct. Yet local authorities do not have the legal right to suspend or disqualify councillors for serious breaches of the councils’ codes – a robust measure recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and available to councils in other parts of the UK.

Additionally, while the majority of councils in our sample had proactive standards committees to provide oversight on councillors’ ethical conduct, 22 per cent of local authorities either had inactive standards committees or they didn’t have one at all.

 

Moving forward

Most councillors serve their communities with integrity, but our findings show that the existing system is open to the perception, and also the reality, of abuse. To mitigate these risks and strengthen democracy, we provide ten detailed recommendations in our report, which can be summarised into three key themes:

  • Increase transparency over councillors’ engagement with developers and their representatives to prevent the perception or reality of undue influence.
  • Tighten rules governing the conduct of councillors to protect the planning process from abuse for personal gain.
  • Strengthen oversight over councillors’ conduct to deter behaviour that would bring the integrity of the planning process into question.

 

 

Transparency International is the UK’s leading independent anti-corruption organisation:  https://www.transparency.org.uk/

Teddy Marks, Research Officer

Teddy joined the UK Anti-Corruption Programme in January 2020. His work focuses on corruption risks in planning and housing decisions both at the national and local level. Previously, Teddy interned at Transparency International’s Defence and Security Programme after gaining professional experience in political risk. He holds a Masters in International Relations at the LSE, and a Bachelors in Politics and Quantitative Research Methods at Bristol University.

 

 

 

 

 

Public Inquiries, Public Value?

Justine Rainbow

Public inquiries are a frequent element of democracy in the UK: yet the way that media and public view them can be contradictory.  For some, they are the pinnacle of independent investigations and calls for inquiries almost inevitably follow any tragedy or scandal.  For others, they represent an enormous drain on public funds whilst delivering little tangible benefit.

I recently completed research considering the value of public inquiries from the viewpoint of those running them, examining whether government control over nominally independent inquiries is too great, and assessing the effectiveness of inquiries through the lens of public value theory, championed by Mark Moore in his 1995 book on creating public value.  My research began with analysis of the literature, including earlier reviews of inquiries by – among others – the Institute for Government, the National Audit Office and a select committee investigation into the impact of the Inquiries Act.  Picking out a number of common themes, I tested their validity among a small group of interviewees including current and former inquiry secretaries and solicitors, panel members, and a handful of other senior staff.

My research identified two main areas in which inquiries delivered less value than they should: in the start-up phase, and in the implementation of their recommendations.  All my interviewees agreed that the first months of an inquiry are harder than they should be.  Government, perhaps keen to demonstrate non-interference, can be slow to provide support and guidance on how to run an inquiry.  Lessons learned reports – written by secretaries at the end of each inquiry – tend to be lost in government recordkeeping systems.  Despite persistent calls for a centralised support unit for inquiries, from inquiry insiders and outsiders alike, have been resisted by successive governments for two decades until last year when a small unit was finally established.

The other main area of limited effectiveness is at the other end of the inquiry’s lifespan, often once the inquiry itself has ceased to exist.  Recommendations are non-binding: both public and private organisations can reject or ignore recommendations; those that are accepted can be allowed to quietly fade away once public and media interest wanes. A lack of monitoring means that the impact of inquiries is invisible to most.  Non-implementation of recommendations is perhaps the main area of ineffectiveness and public value failure for too many inquiries.

Public value theory provided a framework for analysing the extent of government control over inquiries.  Its concept of the ‘strategic triangle’ – developed by Philip Heymann in the late 1980s and refined by Moore – suggests three elements that should make an effective organisation: mission, external support and operational capacity.  Criticism arises in the literature that government has too much control over the scope of inquiries (their mission) and can close an inquiry (withdraw their external support) at any time.  However, the officials I interviewed found neither of these to be a significant problem and therefore not a barrier to delivering effective public value. Scope is discussed and agreed with the independent chair, and a minister is highly unlikely to close an inquiry that they have established, particularly when support from victims and the wider public is high.

However, interviewees were concerned over implementation of recommendations, which can be rejected by public and private sector organisations alike, with little transparency of reasoning.  Some felt there should be a dedicated body or bodies responsible for monitoring implementation and enforcing transparency; others felt monitoring mechanisms already exist – Parliamentary Select Committees for example – but are poorly utilised.

Operational capacity also tends to rest – initially – with government.  Many inquiries are staffed by officials with no prior inquiry experience and my interviewees had generally found it difficult to work out ‘how to do it’.  Guidance issued by the Cabinet Office is out of date and provides limited assistance.  Commercial frameworks to assist inquiries with procuring their specific needs, such as hearing centres or evidence management systems, do not exist.  Ultimately, new inquiries have to rely on the willingness of other inquiries to help them get started; indeed my research found that inquiries could be much more proactive in disseminating guidance and helping new organisations establish themselves rapidly.

But on the subject of government control, public value theory argues that it is right for inquiries – with their typically high expenditure – to remain within the control of elected politicians, even if this blurs the lines of independence.  With the beginnings of a centralised support unit for inquiries and an evolving network of intra-inquiry knowledge transfer, the problems around start-up may diminish in the future.  Monitoring recommendations is a trickier subject – the main difficulties being the identification of an appropriate body with the authority to demand responses from both public and private sector organisations.

For those of us running inquiries, we naturally believe that they deliver value.  Most critically they provide a degree of catharsis for victims and their families.  The information made available by inquiries also allows the public to assess facts for themselves. But we also recognise that the early steps could be much more efficient and that recommendations don’t always make the impact we hope for.  The apparently simple steps needed to improve these two elements (more support from government and establishment of a monitoring body) are in fact complicated but I look forward to the future of inquiries with some confidence – things are improving and there is a drive in the inquiries community to lobby for and work towards better things.

 

References

Moore, M. (1995) Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts).

National Audit Office (2018). Investigation into Government-Funded Inquiries (House of Commons: London).  Available at https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Investigation-into-government-funded-inquiries.pdf,

Norris, E & Shepheard, M. (2017) How Public Inquiries Can Lead to Change. Available at: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Public%20Inquiries%20%28final%29.pdf

Parliament. (2014) House of Lords Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005 The Inquiries Act 2005: post-legislative scrutiny, London: The Stationery Office Ltd. Available at:  https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldinquiries/143/143.pdf

 

Justine Rainbow is Head of Information Management at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.  Ten of her twenty years as a civil servant have involved working with or for public inquiries.  During her MPA with the University of Birmingham, her dissertation focused on the public value of inquiries.