Handforth and the acoustics of local democracy

Kevin Harris

“Underlying the democratic ideal of government by consent of the governed is… the consent of the governed to behave themselves” (Jacobs, 2004, p. 211)

What might Jane Jacobs have had to say about recent challenges to democracy – like the prorogation of the UK parliament, the assault on the US capitol, Myanmar, and the fraught tragi-comedy of Handforth Parish Council’s infamous committee meeting? The expectation that the governed should behave themselves surely extends to those elected to govern. But our representatives sometimes disregard this, dismissing codes of conduct and protocols, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has found. In my limited experience as a community council clerk I witnessed some of the consequences, having had to ensure on one occasion that police were on hand for a full council meeting, following a reported threat of disruption. It’s not so fanciful to see a connection between the villages of Washington DC and Handforth, Cheshire. Nonetheless, there may be a positive indirect consequence for local democracy, which I shall come to.

I do not propose to re-measure the hole that Handforth councillors dug themselves into. The episode was referred to by the Society of Local Council Clerks as “superficially amusing” while it exemplifies syndromic bullying behaviours. At the same time, if the celebrated Jackie Weaver has entertained many, there seems little doubt that she was out of order. The puzzle that remains unsolved (for me, at least) was posed parenthetically by David Allen Green in a heavily-commented post: “who can exclude a disruptive chair if the chair is disruptive?” I refer my right honourable friend to the quotation I gave earlier.

For those of us who have been keen to see a higher profile for parish and community councils, the Handforth incident is Fate’s Reminder to be careful what you wish for. And for all the comment generated – much of it showcasing a forensic fascination with regulatory niceties – what has struck me is how little of it acknowledges how local people have been forsaken by the institution designed to represent them.

There are two elephants in the zoom. One is the alpha male whose sense of power tramples his sense of responsibility (‘trump’ might be a better verb to use, but for the entangling of metaphors). The SLCC calls for “a dramatic strengthening of the standards regime”. Hmm, how dramatic would you like?

The other is democracy’s reliance on an impenetrable bureaucratic skin. It’s hard to see how the regulatory framework can be reduced, and Handforth may have given cause to extend it. But its effects can be countered, and there are all sorts of devices for that. As a clerk I wanted councillors to host, in turn, one each month, an informal reception (refreshments of course) immediately before each council meeting, inviting all residents from their zone (ward). And keep doing it. A few people we didn’t know, would have come. In time, the democratic return on investment would surely be visible in terms of the numbers who stayed on for at least part of the meeting, those who raised issues, and those who voted at the next election.

I failed to persuade my management group of any virtues in this idea, but had I stayed longer in post I think I could have got this and similar notions established. Democracy needs diligent ongoing maintenance, not frantic last-minute repairs.

To me, a key point about town and parish councils – now sometimes called ‘ultra-local councils’ – is that among their powers is a rather special informal convening power. They are able quickly, and usually a-politically, to bring together agencies (including principal authorities, police, health, schools etc), local businesses, community groups and residents to focus on specific local issues and get them sorted. This is oddly under-appreciated, not least by principal authorities. And it points to the need, when talking about democratic revitalisation, to ensure reference to the community sector, which can function as a democracy sandpit, default care provider, lightning-conductor for issues, and social responsibility conscience for councils.

Well, we now have a parish council in England that has become a huge embarrassment to its residents. The technology made a difference: Jackie Weaver’s performance would have been impossible in a face-to-face meeting. Meanwhile, councils in all tiers apparently have reported increased participation through online meetings. Bryony Rudkin offered insightful councillor’s reflections on the comparison with face-to-face meetings, on this channel recently. Now the government is under pressure to remove, permanently, the legal requirement for councils to meet in person.

I observe that public debate over the past year, in and out of lockdown, has acknowledged the reality that many families do not have anything like adequate technology to participate in a virtual society: so at least that argument doesn’t have to be made, does it? How then are hybrid meetings going to function against the risk of exclusion (the affluent signing in from home, with their intimidating bookshelf-backdrops; the rest huddling round a phone on threadbare broadband)? Do we expect those who would not have been likely to attend a formal council meeting before, and who cannot participate online, suddenly to be so excited at the prospect of a Weaveresque fracas that they’ll be queuing at the door?

There will have to be guidance for hybrid meetings, for all tiers. I’d like to see strong recommendation that councils fund community centres to host large-screen streaming. Community development workers will want to set these up anyway – refreshments, creche, homework corner, publicity; and someone on hand to give a little introduction and explain procedural necessities, to ‘sub-chair’ participation from the ‘annexe’, and provide feedback to officers. Councillors and officers should be encouraged to participate from these locations.

Forget the Handforth cacophony, maybe this is a chance to improve the acoustics of local democracy.

Kevin Harris is a PhD student at INLOGOV, researching into democratic voice and community action in local councils. He was previously a community development consultant and Chief Officer at Queen’s Park Community Council in London (2017-2019).

Photo source: https://www.swingdebates.com/news/handforth-parish-council/

References

Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2019. Local government ethical standards:  a review. Committee on Standards in Public Life, London.

Jacobs, J., 2004. Dark age ahead. Random House, New York.

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.