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.
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.