Press release 30th Jul 2020

Councils lack essential safeguards to prevent corruption in planning process

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Permission Accomplished

Publication

This report focusses on specific corruption risks in major planning decisions, an area where there is often a large amount of money at stake. It is also very contentious, with many new developments resulting in a net loss of social and genuinely affordable housing, which in many areas are in short supply.

To understand what could undermine openness in the planning process and what local authorities are doing to stop this, we have collected evidence from across England. Although there are some examples of good practice, generally the results make for a worrying read.

Unminuted, closed-door meetings with developers and excessive hospitality undoubtedly undermine confidence in the planning process, yet too many local authorities have weak rules to stop this 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.

To address these issues we propose ten practical solutions, none of which are beyond the means of those who need to implement them. All reinforce existing guidance and good practice recommended by anti-fraud and corruption initiatives here and internationally. Some even reflect existing practice in particular parts of the UK, such as Scotland.

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ASSESSMENT SHOWS MAJOR PLANNING DECISIONS ACROSS ENGLAND OPEN TO INFLUENCE OF SECRETIVE LOBBYING, CONFLICTS OF INTEREST, ALLEGATIONS OF BRIBERY

 

July 30, 2020 - Local authorities across England lack essential safeguards to prevent corruption in the planning process, new research by Transparency International UK has warned.

Permission Accomplished details how individuals and companies may 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. 

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 UK assessed 50 councils in England with planning responsibilities for housing and scored them on how well they manage corruption risks using a scale of 0 (poor) to 100 (meets good practice).

 

  • All show significant room for improvement, with an average score of just 38 out of 100
  • 84 per cent of these councils scored less than 50
  • More than half scored under 40, indicating worrying gaps in corruption safeguards

 

The report identifies five key corruption risks relating to councillors’ involvement in major planning decisions, including:

Alleged bribery and excessive gifts and hospitality

A £500 million+ development in Tower Hamlets is under investigation by the National Crime Agency over the alleged solicitation of bribes for councillors.

A planning Chair in Westminster council was forced to resign over excessive gifts and hospitality worth over £13,000.

Secretive lobbying

A £200 million+ development in Liverpool is under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, with no minutes taken at meetings between the developers, councillors and their officials.

Conflicts of interest

We found 32 councillors across 24 councils holding critical decision-making positions in their local planning system whilst also working for developers.

 

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.”

 

We make 10 practical recommendations that would be relatively inexpensive, easy for local authorities to implement and would improve transparency and strengthen oversight of the planning process, including:

  • 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

 

Notes to editors:

We assessed a sample of 50 out of the 317 (15 per cent) councils in England with planning responsibilities for housing to see how each one sought to prevent, protect and pursue corruption in planning decisions by councillors.

We judged these authorities on how well their policies and procedures matched up to good practice standards we developed using the evidence from our research, and which build on existing work by the Local Government Association and the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The report identifies five key corruption risks relating to councillors’ involvement in major planning decisions: bribery and excessive gifts and hospitality, secretive lobbying, conflicts of interest, abuse of the ‘revolving door’ between public and private sector, and weak oversight.

Official data shows that for the financial year ending March 2019, there were over 7,000 major planning decisions made by 317 different local authorities in England.

 

Contact:

Harvey Gavin

harvey.gavin@transparency.org.uk

+44 (0)79 6456 0340